Mariano Rivera will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Over the next six months or so, as we approach the actual induction weekend, we’ll be flooded with tributes, memories and biographies of the greatest relief pitcher in the history of baseball. Before we get to all that, though, I wanted to take a couple hundred words and explain what Mo meant to me.
My childhood home is 483 miles from Yankee Stadium, across the longest international border on the planet. I didn’t get to a game in the Bronx until I was 12, and for most of my formative years, before part-time jobs earned me enough money for an MLB.tv subscription, my following of the Yankees was driven by newspaper box scores and highlight packages on SportsCenter.
Of course the one constant in those box scores was “S – Rivera (x)”, a symptom of being the best there ever was at your position. Lineups change daily, and the starter only throws once a week or so, but Rivera was always there. A kid who didn’t get to watch his team play all that often naturally gravitated towards the constant, that “S – Rivera”. Almost every highlight block featuring the Yankees ended with Rivera striking out a batter, or more memorably, shredding a bat into pieces.
When I did get to go to games, it was almost always at Rogers Center, mostly watching the free-spending Yankees beat up on a lost decade for the Blue Jays and those atrocious black jerseys. Fortunately for me, this meant that I got to see a lot of Mo in person, especially since the most economical tickets for a family of four were in the lower deck of right field…directly above the visitor’s bullpen.
I even have a Rivera ball, the only piece of sports memorabilia that I’ve kept. Not content with just being a great pitcher, Mo was a terrific all-around athlete and was famously enthusiastic about shagging fly balls in center field in batting practice. One day game after the Yankees’ rounds ended, Rivera threw the three balls he had into the right field seats, and I happened to catch one. It’s not authenticated or signed; I have no way of proving to anyone how I got it. But it’s mine and sits on the same shelf as my high school diploma and university graduation photos.
I became a fan of Rivera the way kids become fans of anything: exposure and consistency. He was the most visible member of the team for me, and the first athlete I remember loving. Even better, he’s validated and justified that love as a professional and a person.
Most pro athletes are not the nicest people. The singular drive that makes them so good at what they do often leaves them ultra-competitive and a little hard to socialize with. In a lot of ways, the elite of athletes are wired the same ways as CEOs and top academics — sometimes not really following along with the whole empathy thing. Kevin Dutton’s excellent The Wisdom of Psychopaths presents a pretty good case that a dislocation from empathy helps retain focus and boost athletic performance.
Rivera’s an outlier in that sense. Nobody could deny his razor-sharp focus and ability to perform in the moment. More men have walked on the moon than have scored against Mo in the postseason, where the pressure only ever rises. Despite that unbelievable — almost inhuman — ability to rein in all emotion and block out distraction, he remained incredibly affable off the field. He treated the sport he played for a living like the kids’ game it always has been.
After blowing a save in 2009, late in the season as the Yankees were readying for yet another World Series run, you could imagine a player would be at least annoyed and at worst downright furious. Ken Giles punched himself right off probably the best roster in baseball this year because of his inability to stay grounded. Rivera, after blowing that 2009 save, walked out of the visitor’s clubhouse in Safeco licking a chocolate ice cream cone.
I don’t really think that pro athletes should be role models, partly for reasons discussed above. Mo is the exception, as he was in almost every other way. Look up to Mariano Rivera, everyone. Be more like him.
And to Mariano, thank you. Thank you for shepherding my interest in the game that’s become my mistress. Thank you for not letting me down off the field, the way so many players we might look up to have. Thank you for two decades of on-field excellence that we’ll never see again.
From the young man in section 106R, thank you, and congratulations.