I was born in 1980, and have lived my entire life in Nebraska and Iowa. When you live in states with no professional franchises, your allegiances are formed in strange ways. As a kid, I always wanted to be Don Mattingly, first baseman for one of the three teams I could watch with regularity on what passed for cable television in those days. I took being a lefty as a source of pride. I took my forced placement at first base as a sign from the Gods. The Yankees, somewhat hapless in those days, were my team, and Donnie Baseball was my guy.
Mattingly gave up his chase for a World Series in the same year that I stopped playing competitive baseball. He had grown too old to keep up, hitting just 7 home runs in that last year and looking worn down by years of carrying questionable teams on his back. I got a job, retiring with a career batting average far closer to Mario Mendoza than Don Mattingly. In any case, both of our respective baseball careers were over.
The 1995 team that won the wild card and lost the ALDS to Seattle in heartbreaking fashion only further fueled my love of this team. The Yankees had gone so long without winning anything significant -- hadn't even been in the playoffs in my conscious life -- that their mere presence in October drove me to love them even more. It was different now, though. I wasn't watching my perceived future out there. I was watching guys who were dangerously close to my own age. Bernie. Jeter. Pettite. And Mariano Rivera, the setup man. On October 26, they won the World Series. On October 27, I turned 16 and got a car.
Those Yankee teams were there through my last years of high school and the entirety of my stay in college. I cheered like an obnoxious jackass when they won in 2000, just a couple of months after my first visit to the Stadium. I sulked for weeks after the cosmic injusitce of 2001, a World Series that opened on my 21st birthday. When I finally moved to my own place after law school in 2006, I slipped the DirecTV guy my last $20 to get the networks in hi-def in time for the playoffs. The guys from that 1996 squad, the core of that Yankees team, were as much a rock of stability through the most turbulent years of my life as my friends and family.
I got to see Jeter play a dozen times, and, like many Yankees fans, it's his jersey that sits in my closet to this day. I saw Williams a handful of times. I watched Pettitte twice, including a masterful seven-inning, two-hit performance.
I got to watch Rivera pitch three times. He blew all three saves. The one that stands out: April 15, 2006. The Metrodome. The Yankees were up against my dad's favorite team, the Minnesota Twins, and we were both in attendance. New York took a 5-4 lead in the 7th on a two-run single by Jeter and a later A-Rod single that brought him home. Rivera entered the game, and I -- fairly well-lubricated -- proclaimed that the hammer of God was here. It was over. Might as well go home, Minnesota fans.
Luis Castillo singled. Joe Mauer singled after him. Runners at the corners, nobody out. I shut up for a second.
Rivera struck out Rondell White. He ran a backdoor cutter at Torii Hunter for a second strikeout, and suddenly the Yankees were one out from winning. I was vocally excited, right up until the point where Justin Freaking Morneau dropped a hit into right field. Mauer beat the throw home. The Twins won, 6-5, and my dad, my mom, my brother, and the tweenage girl sitting behind me all screamed in my face.
I booked tickets at the new Stadium for last season and got to see the old guard -- well, at least Jeter -- one last time, but obviously Rivera didn't pitch. Work and family and 200 other things conspired to limit my time watching this year's squad, I am sorry to say. I didn't bother buying Baseball Prospectus this year. My MLB.TV app is woefully underutilized. I really didn't get involved until these last few weeks, as the days ticked down on Rivera's career.
And these last few weeks have been so much different than what I'd felt during the last weeks of 1995. With Mattingly, it was acceptance of life as a fan and never as a player. With Rivera, it's been acceptance of life as a worse fan, as a guy with a career and a mortgage and a second job writing about a sport that had far less effect on his 14-year-old self, who does his best to keep up but can't watch the minutiae of every Yankee game, who is relegated to a cursory glance at box scores on most days, who is frequently confused when those box scores include four names he doesn't know. The old guard is going: Bernie's been gone for years. Rivera and Pettitte are done this week. Nobody knows how many more years of Jeter we have, but this year was a fairly clear sign that it could well be one. They've grown old, and I've grown old with them, and I often wish for the younger them, and the younger me that would go along with them. Mariano's exit tonight, with Pettitte and Jeter at his side, made my cry. In many ways, the baseball fan I was for their entire careers is walking off with them, replaced by the guy who will one day tell his kids that he saw Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer in the history of the game.
Goodbye, Mo. We'll miss you dearly.