It’s been a tough week in the United States; at the moment, hopeless disagreement reigns supreme here. As you surely know, our government shut down on Monday. Just as bad, though, on Sunday we lost two of the very few people that all of us in this country could happily get behind: Breaking Bad’s Walter White and New York Yankees' closer Mariano Rivera. One was a bad man who died; the other was a good man who retired.
I was surprised, I have to admit, by the love that Rivera received as he made his way through a league-wide farewell tour this summer. The preacher’s husband from Panama received parting gifts and standing ovations in every park, and behind the scenes he took the time to meet with the regular folks who worked for the teams and at the stadiums. This year Rivera went from Hall of Fame pitcher to baseball's version of a saint. He made us, for a few moments, feel OK again about turning pro athletes into heroes.
This surprised me because, while baseball is known as our “national pastime,” it’s really a much more regional sport than football or basketball. The vast majority of baseball games aren’t broadcast nationally, and its players are known mostly to their home fans. There’s no Lebron James or Peyton Manning of the diamond right now—unless you count Alex Rodriguez, of course. I had always thought of Rivera, despite the fact that everyone knew he was the best closer in history, as belonging to New York, the city where he played his entire 19-year career. It was nice to find out that wasn’t true, that his unparalleled excellence and humble demeanor were recognized everywhere.
But the fact that Rivera was a likable guy who happened to be the best in history doesn’t quite account for the national show of love. Another veteran Yankee, Derek Jeter, is even more famous than Rivera, and maybe more valuable, but I’d be surprised if his send-off matches his old friend’s. Rivera represented something more. As many have noted, he dominated the sport for two decades with a single pitch, thrown almost exclusively to a single spot. It was an invention of his called a “cutter,” a ball that, basically, looked just like a fastball until the last second, when it cut a few inches to the left. Everyone knew it was coming. Everyone knew where it was going to be thrown. Nobody could hit it. Mo was more than great: He was magic.
For Yankees fans, Rivera’s farewell also marked the likely end of a 20-year era. I’ve always been a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies first, but I adopted the Yankees when I moved here in the early 1990s, mainly because I could watch them all the time, and they were part of the city conversation. It also didn’t hurt that the Yanks were on the rise just as the Phils were beginning a decade-long decline. Seeing clips of a young Rivera from those times, when he had dark hair, a rail-thin physique, and the look of a silent killer, brought back a flood of late-90s memories.
Memories of sitting in a Brooklyn bar when the team's catcher, Jim Leyritz, hit the three-run, game-tying homer off Mark Wohlers of the Atlanta Braves in the 1996 World Series that officially started the Yankees' run of dominance. I’ve never heard a collective “Woooooooooo!!!!!” in a room last longer—it went in waves, up and down, up and down, and sounded as if it might never end. In retrospect, you might say something changed for the team and for the city with that home run, and we were aware of it even then—the game was only tied, but somehow we knew.
The next five years were good ones for New York. They ended in the fall of 2001, and not even Mo could save us that time. I can remember sinking down into my couch as far as I could go as he came in to try to close the seventh game of the World Series, the game that was going to make us feel just a little bit better after 9/11. I don’t think I’ve ever been as scared while watching a sporting event. I was right to be, unfortunately. That time Mo blew it, and no Yankee fan will ever shake the memory of his horrifyingly wild off-line throw to second base that gave the Series to the—who?—Arizona Diamondbacks.
Rivera wasn’t, despite his incredible success, automatic. He was the Sandman who put the opponents to sleep, but you knew there was a human out there, too; if his cutter didn’t cut that inch or two at the end, it could fly a long way. His legendary status even had the effect of making his rare errors more glaring and memorable: There was that throw to second in the 2001 World Series, as well as a steal by someone named Dave Roberts of the Boston Red Sox that allowed them back into the 2004 American League Championship Series, which they eventually won. (The ever-self-absorbed Sox, naturally, showed a clip of that moment in their farewell ceremony for Rivera this year.) Rivera was the precipice personified, and it was only when he blew a lead that you appreciated how easy he usually made his nerve-wracking job look. But he triumphed in defeat as well. It gave him a chance to flash a gracious smile, and let us know that, even a game against the Red Sox was just that, a game.
Still, Mo was almost always a winner, as were the Yankees of that era; they won four World Series titles in five years. But while Rivera is still revered, the Yanks' great run of the last two decades doesn't seem as glorious as it once did. This was the Steroid Era, and the Yankees played their part in it: Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Chuck Knoblauch, and Alex Rodriguez, among others, have all been tied to PEDs. For now, we can only hope that Rivera’s name never joins that list.
Off the top of my head, the tennis player that Rivera reminds me of most is Pete Sampras. Both had the easiest of motions, they could win with one shot, and they knew how to close. In another sense, though, Rivera is like Roger Federer—everyone, everywhere, agrees on those two guys.
Americans need someone to agree on these days, and sports fans need heroes. Thanks for making us believe in magic again, Mo.
Have a good weekend.