Just around the corner from my home, there is a small historical marker near a public park. It’s located squarely on a road that I’m not sure was even there when the event occurred. Back in 1790, George Washington passed through the area to thank supporters of the Revolutionary War, trying to unify the colonies after a conflict that split Long Island in two.
There isn’t much more information than that on the sign, though. One can go through Washington’s actual diary to see that he met with the Long Island Chamber of Commerce, and that each sign denoted a location where he was met with a ceremony or parade. One would also learn that the point of this trip was to stimulate patriotism and generate interest in the history of the Island and the tour itself. As stated here, it was a really big deal at the time.
This sign always has me thinking, though. What exactly is the point of these signs? What purpose do they serve to a particular community, and what information is supposed to be conveyed, exactly? It may seem like a harmless sign, but as with all things, it’s imbued with an entire volume of historical, political, social, and emotional contextual information.
This Sunday, the Yankees honored Mariano Rivera with his own sign—a Monument Park plaque. It was a steamy afternoon, a heat one could never forget, and I was lucky enough to be in attendance. I was also lucky enough to spend the afternoon with family, which only adds to that emotional connection we feel with monuments, plaques, and public displays of history.
There were a number of late-’90s Yankees greats in attendance as well, many of whom were at the previous game in honor of the 1996 team—John Wetteland, Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter, Joe Torre, Mel Stottlemyre, Paul O’Neill, David Cone, Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez—it was truly a Greatest Hits edition of recent Yankees history, and the fans, including myself, ate it up.
In fact, I was too young to experience the full career of Rivera, and even many of the other players listed. I witnessed the second half of the Yankees dynasty, or what many fans call the “disappointing half” of the Yankees dynasty, when they were excellent every year but didn’t consistently win the World Series. Nonetheless, it was a special time to grow up as a Yankees fan, and all of these players are part of that collective memory.
I don’t need to explain how prolific a career Rivera had, because I don’t think that’s the point here. I mentioned the Washington sign and its implied values, because Rivera’s presence on the team itself, at least for fans, felt more emotional than logical, more metaphysical than physical itself.
When one, as a fan or foe alike, heard “Enter Sandman” and saw Rivera taking his warm-up tosses in the ninth, the game felt over. It didn’t need to be the case that he actually was the best closer ever, but he did it so efficiently and so cleanly that we all felt some warm comfort fall over us even before the ninth inning began.
The plaque, then, becomes the linguistic and logical representation for what many fans would describe as a feeling. If you read the text of the plaque itself, you see this attempt to transpose this emotional feeling to text: “considered the greatest,” “one of the most respected people in the sports world,” “cool and confident”.
Those aren’t facts—we know. This shows the shortcomings of these plaques, but also the reason why they exist in the first place. In 200 years from now, when people are wandering around the Monument Park of the future, there will be that plaque. I guess, in a way, it’s the same as me stumbling on the sign about George Washington, barring the obvious difference between American history and sports (which isn’t as firmly separate as we’d think, but that’s for another day).
That sign could not, and didn’t even try, to sum up the emotions of what people felt and thought when they greeted Washington, post-Revolutionary War in an entirely new country with a new head of state, just like many people in the future will struggle to understand what people thought of Rivera at the time of his career.
This is why having family there with you on that day, as a fan, is special. An important coexisting feature of the plaque history is the oral history, explaining to one’s kids and thereafter why there is some nostalgic connection. The plaque, then, is a guiding tool, where first-hand accounts and official records combine to make a more accurate picture of what people felt at the time.
The Monument Park plaque, if anything, is more about the fan than the player itself. It, like that Washington sign/tour, was meant to drum up interest in the ideals and emotions tied to America, just as the Yankees organization would want to further an emotional and historical narrative to generate interest and revenue.
Mariano Rivera’s plaque will stand at that site much longer than any of us will be alive. It likely will exist when not one living person has any emotional connection to the player itself. It’s for that reason that baseball is a social and familial sport, and it’s all the more reason we should share the oral histories of why we cared so much about Rivera, and how it brings back memories of childhood, or family, or joy. That, combined with a public display of the time, gives us a unique look into a slice of American cultural life, and why one man, and one pitch, meant so much to a city.