For the last 19 years, I’ve had a—admittedly one-way—love-hate relationship with the greatest closer in baseball history. But as I watched the Yankees honor Mariano Rivera at the stadium on Sunday, there was only one emotion coming to the forefront; gratitude.
Simply put, I came to the realization that I—and other baseball fans—should be thankful that we were alive to watch one of the greatest pitchers of all-time work at his craft for as long as he did.
In the modern era, much has been made of the fact that baseball no longer holds the same emotional hold over the American public as it once did. If you ask a native New Yorker who grew up as a baseball fan in the time of DiMaggio, Mantle, Mays or the other greats who have played for teams in the Big Apple, it’s more than likely to lead to stories of these men, not as athletes, but as larger than life figures; mythical beings who captured the attention of the city–and the nation–when baseball was at it’s pinnacle.
These men—or memories of their deeds—are indelible reminders of a bygone era, and speak to a time, rightly or wrongly, where the game of baseball represented the innocence of our nation.
In the second half of the 20th century, however, those old notions regarding America’s pastime were gradually stripped away by a multitude of factors: increasing player salaries, football’s meteoric rise in popularity, steroid scandals and a pervasive cynicism in our culture that seemingly roots for icons to fail.
But even when he blew a rare save, Mo never failed.
As a Red Sox fan, I’ve cursed Mariano Rivera more times than I can count and always dreaded the moments when the great Rivera would jog in from the bullpen with the Yanks holding a one-run lead in the ninth inning‑even after 2004. As a baseball fan, however, I always respected his abilities, his demeanor and his approach to the game.
Back in the early 2000s, while I was working as a baseball instructor at Frozen Ropes, Rivera came in to film an instructional pitching video. Now, I’d watched Mo for years, both on TV and at Yankee Stadium, but getting to see Mo, five feet away, throwing a bullpen session and generating an effortless power from his wiry frame was—at least to me—analogous with watching Michelangelo painting the Sistene Chapel.
But, beyond his devastating cutter, Mo was as valuable to the game of baseball for who he was on and off the field. Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen all-time greats like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens tarnish their legacies with links to performance enhancing drugs. We saw injuries and age rob the sweetest swinger of my lifetime, Ken Griffey, Jr., of his tools and the electricity with which he played the game. But Mo soldiered on, year after year, avoiding any off-field scandals, throwing one pitch that was as close to an example of perfection as one will find in any sport.
There will be no more October moments for Rivera. The season will end with the Yankees on the outside looking in, and Mo—as well as fellow retiring Yankee Andy Pettite—will hang them up forever.
And while Rivera never realized his dream of playing centerfield for the Yankees, he will be there in perpetuity with a well-deserved spot in Monument Park.
Someday, I hope to tell my son about the great Rivera in the same reverent tone that my father recounted the feats of Mays and Mantle. But I’ll know, in my heart, that, as grand as his myth becomes, it won’t even begin to scratch the surface of seeing him take the mound in person.
Follow Mike on Twitter, @LiveMike_Sports