Column: Yankees blessed to have had Rivera
Published: Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 23:09
A rocking chair made of baseball bats, a custom-designed guitar autographed by Willie Mays and Metallica and a retirement plaque in Monument Park; these were just some of the lavish gifts Mariano Rivera received last Sunday after the New York Yankees held a 50-minute ceremony to honor their legendary closer.
But every Yankees fan, like me, knows that the real gift is Rivera and what he has meant to the team for almost two decades.
Since Rivera took over as the full-time closer in 1997, he has been the definitive period mark for the Yankees and a sore sight for their opponents. I don’t need to bring out the numbers to tell you just how great of a career he has had, if you are a baseball fan, you should’ve already known.
Now, after 19 sensational years in pinstripes, the man known simply as ‘Mo,’ has decided to call it quits at the end of the season. Even though I have prepared for this for a good while, when the moment finally comes, it will still be difficult for me to say goodbye to the man whom I have idolized for a better half of my life.
On that chilly Sunday afternoon, I made the drive from my home in Jersey to Yankee Stadium. It is a trip I have made countless times, but never had it felt so somber and gloomy. I thought about how this was going to be my last time ever to watch Rivera pitch in person and suddenly my black Toyota felt more like a hearse.
Instead, a warm and fuzzy feeling at the stadium made me realize that this was going to be a celebration, a festivity, a party. In a ballpark that holds over 50,000 people, not a single seat was empty. It has been a while since I’ve seen the stadium like this.
A glance around the ballpark displayed Rivera-related items everywhere. From No. 42 jerseys to shirts playing off the pun ‘Mo,’ along with Panamanian flags, it might as well have been a convention. Everyone was here for the venerable 43-year-old pitcher.
But Rivera never lived for the attention and the spotlight. He lived for helping others, and most importantly, those who really needed it.
It has been well documented that Rivera travels back to his hometown, just outside of Panama City, during the offseasons to give back to his community through his foundation. Whether it’s feeding the hungry, buying school supplies for the children or building a local church, Rivera has always put others foremost and in a way, has been making different kinds of saves.
Throughout the farewell tour this season, Rivera had also made stops to visit many of the people who contribute to baseball behind the scenes. He talked to them, listened to them, thanked them and helped them in any way he knew how, yet never asked for anything in return.
Even for the those who didn’t know that, the video board above center field provided enough education on Sunday as a variety of athletes and celebrities from the likes of Tom Brady to Adam Sandler, told heartwarming stories and paid tribute to the last man to ever wear No. 42.
It’s moments like these that make you realize just the kind of man Rivera is, and why he deserved and needed to be honored across baseball.
So on that day, ‘Mariano Rivera Day,’ as New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg proclaimed, the 43-year-old Panama native stood on the field surrounded by his closest friends, family and teammates, as he relished in the standing ovations and nostalgic memories for himself, for once in his career.
When all the pomp and circumstance concluded, however, there was still a game to be played and storylines to be written. The Yankees were still in the thick of the playoff race with a chance to sweep the defending champion San Francisco Giants.
Not to mention another Yankees legend, Andy Pettitte, was making his final home start.
Over Pettitte’s 16 seasons with the Yankees, the lefty notched 218 wins, with 73 of them (83 including postseason) having been saved by Rivera, the most by any duo in the history of the game.
It was setting up to be that type of finish again until the Giants played spoiler.
Pettitte took a no-hitter into the sixth inning with the Yankees up 1-0, but only to give up a solo homerun to even up the score. Two innings later, a leadoff double by Pablo Sandoval forced the 41-year-old left-hander to walk off the mound at Yankee Stadium for the last time, but not before the fans sent him off with thunderous chants of ‘Andy Pettitte!”
After David Robertson gave up an one-out RBI double two batters later, Yankees manager Joe Girardi decided to turn to Rivera and shut the gap.
A deafening roar rang around the stadium as the first notes of ‘Enter Sandman’ hit, and the man of the day made his iconic jog from right field onto the mound with his glove clutched in his right hand.
‘This is the last time I’m going to hear this song at this stadium,’ I thought, trying my best not to lose it.
With Rivera on the mound, every pitch came with cheers and every out came with roars.
He went on to pitch 1 2/3 scoreless innings despite facing several threats, but the Yankees ultimately came up short of the Giants after missing multiple opportunities to tie or take the lead.
With Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York,’ playing through the stadium, I tried to zoom into the Yankees dugout and catch one last glimpse of No. 42, only to find out he was long gone.
What a disappointing way to end the day.
As I made my way through the crowd, I remembered Rivera talking about how much of a ‘blessing’ this career has been for him and then I noticed a Joe DiMaggio shirt in front of me. I reminisced of the Yankee Clipper’s own words and thought, ‘I want to thank the Good Lord for making ‘Mo’ a Yankee.’