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When Mariano Rivera said goodbye

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As we remember the most emotional moments in Yankee history, there is one in my lifetime that I recall most vividly: Exit Sandman

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees

This week, SB Nation celebrates our emotional connection to sports, with “Sports Moments the Made you Cry” week. These could be tears of joy over your team’s triumph, tears of despair after a crushing loss, or tears of sadness over unthinkable tragedy. Whatever the case, the fact that sports can elicit such a response is why we keep coming back for more.

I’m not a terribly emotional person and you probably won’t see me getting misty-eyed for sports moments, movies, or anything non-familial in general. Like Tom Hanks said, “There’s no crying in baseball.” However, seeing Andy Pettitte embrace and console Mariano Rivera as Mo cried into Pettitte’s shoulder was enough to bring this Yankees fan to tears.

It was hard not to get emotional seeing Mariano - the normally stoic, resolute presence on the team - break down on the mound. I felt heartbroken watching the realization sink in that it would be the last time he got to do what he loved in front of the fans and city he loved.

On a personal level, I was losing one of my personal heroes, my favorite player growing up. One of the fondest memories from my childhood was hearing John Sterling announce Mo’s entrance into the game on the little black transistor radio I had on my bedside table. I would listen to every Yankee game before falling asleep, and it felt like an extra blanket of safety knowing Mo was coming in to close out the ninth. I could sleep soundly after hearing Sterling exclaim “Theeeeeeeee... Yankees win!”

Mo’s retirement also coincided with a period of transition in my life, happening as I was finding my footing as a freshman in college. There was a nostalgic and bittersweet side to the tears I cried, as it felt like the closing of a chapter of my Yankees fandom, and thus another piece of confirmation of childhood’s end. Another thread in the fabric of the Yankees I watched as a kid was gone, another step away from team I grew to love. It was time to grow up.

I also cried knowing the game was losing a legend. I mourned the fact that we would never again get to see the greatest reliever of all time ply his craft. I didn’t cry during Jeter’s last game in part because, although he was a legend in his own right, he could never claim to be at the very pinnacle of his position in baseball history.

My sadness extended to the knowledge of how much Mariano meant to the game of baseball. Mariano embodied both a professionalism and an excellence in the most high pressure situations that will never be emulated. Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel, acknowledged that Mo’s “dignity and grace” made him the most fitting to be the last to wear number 42.

Rivera’s greatest contribution to the game was what he was also most famous for: the cutter. Never before and never again will a pitcher display such dominant perfection of a single pitch. Mo revolutionized its usage in the game, a point acknowledged by many current and former stars. What sets Mo apart in this regard was his desire to teach those who reached out to him. Unlike some pitchers who might guard their best pitches as proprietary assets, Mo made it a point to impart as much of his knowledge as he could, knowing that the game of baseball would benefit, even if it sometimes came at the cost of a win here or there for his team.

Sport has such an incredible ability to evoke the strongest, most unadulterated emotions out of fans. There are few things that unite otherwise strangers and divide opinion more than professional sports. So much so that support for a team becomes almost as much a part of one’s identity as ethnicity, nationality, religion, or political affiliation. It is this kinship that creates such intense reactions, letting fans feel the highest of highs and lowest of lows, and even bring us to tears.

On a humid September night, sitting in the common room of my dorm in North Carolina, I found myself getting uncharacteristically emotional watching Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter slowly make their way to the mound. Seeing Mariano Rivera cry as he said one last goodbye to the New York faithful, and feeling the tears well up in my own eyes, I was reminded of how great it was to be a Yankees fan.