Photo by Keith Allison.
Photo by Keith Allison.

My parents’ room had the smallest TV in the house. My mom was already under the covers and I was watching while kneeling to her left on my dad’s side of the bed. He arrived home from a business trip right around the eighth inning—just in time to see Jorge Posada drop a game-tying bloop double into shallow centerfield off an absolutely dominating Pedro Martinez. Three innings and over an hour later Aaron Boone hits the walk-off home run that sends the Yankees to the 2003 World Series. New York was electrified—the happiest sports-fan moment of my life. Boone rounds third in his home-run trot, my dad and I are fired up jumping around the room, and Mariano Rivera is lying in the fetal position, crying on the pitcher’s mound.

This is Mariano Rivera’s final season as a Major League Baseball player, cementing his uncontested position as the best closing pitcher in the game’s history. He is a machine, the closest mortal to Perfection. A baseball God. Human, yes—but you only know that because of his smile.

How many people can claim the unanimous consensus of “best” in their respective discipline? Even the perfectionists amongst us have never been—not witnessed, not idealized, not hypothesized or theorized—but been the objective best in the cream of the crop. Regurgitating his stats would be enough to convince you of his dominance (see: “Mariano Rivera: A 21-Stat Salute,” Jayson Stark, ESPN). But I could also tell you he only throws one pitch—a lethal late-moving cutter—and despite always knowing what’s coming, the hitter still stands no chance. Then I could isolate his playoff stats and redefine for you the meaning of “clutch.” But that’s only half the story; there’s a man behind the stats.

Fifty thousand New Yorkers don’t honor just anyone with a standing ovation upon retirement. Opposing teams don’t present gifts to a retiring visiting player in their home stadium when he merely broke records. Fans don’t cry when just anyone hangs up his uniform, and we wouldn’t feel such a palpable loss for a player who is merely successful. The game isn’t just losing its objective best; it’s losing an icon. A hero.

“Mo” is a powerful beacon of light in the professional sports culture characterized by cheating scandals, unsportsmanlike conduct, and narcissist touchdown dances. A man of faith, he carries himself with an inspiring humility and a serene aura of composure. His mitt is etched with “Phil. 4:13”—the Biblical verse that reads, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”—and he prays before throwing his first pitch that “God watch not only me but my teammates. That no one get hurt.” As opposed to most athletes who pride themselves on emotional indifference and intense egoism, Rivera’s unique combination of a warm smile and willingness to cry in front of millions exemplifies the character of a man described in his farewell ceremony at Boston’s Fenway Park as a “model of grace and class.” For fans across the globe, his retirement arouses feelings that are mostly intangible: the unintelligible moment that chills goosebumps up my spine with shivers and tears as number 42 emerges from the bullpen for the last time to a familiar and nostalgic “Enter Sandman” by Metallica.

Yankees Nation is, in fact, just that: a nation. We span across oceans and have distinct accents; we are from New York and we are from Tokyo; we are every ethnicity and have different values and might spend all day competing if locked in a room together. But our common language is baseball—we experience the power of sport to build and foster a genuinely diverse community. From the first pitch to the last pitch, we drop all differences, living and breathing pinstripe blue. And for the past nineteen seasons, Mariano has been the one to throw that last pitch—uniting fans as their communal symbol of dignity and poise, always shaking the catcher’s hand, whether back-up or All-Star, following that final out.

Rivera was born into a poor fishing family in Panama, spending his free hours and days playing baseball with stones and milk-carton mitts. There were no after-school sports clinics or trainers or weighted fungo bats to develop Major League-grade skill. Now, he returns to Panama to donate school supplies and fund the construction of a new chapel for his community. This man lived the American Dream—starting with nothing and now sealing his unique place in the heart of New York(ers) and beyond.

There’s definitely some aspect of my deeply visceral response that elicits a weird brand of guilt. Why do I care? Mariano may be a baseball God, an incredible athlete, but has he saved any lives? Baseball is a stupid game whose professional players earn obscene salaries for arguably contributing very little to society. But it is so much more than just a game and its emotional power is derived, in good part, from its symbolism. My father bringing me to the game. My begging him to have a catch in our backyard. The moment you walk out from the stadium concourse, seeing only a tiny fraction of the field through the narrow tunnel leading to the seats and finally surfacing to the opening, the tremendous expanse of the field and stadium and fans and lights all rushing through you in the one flood of adrenaline that makes you a Baseball Fan.

Mariano’s retirement marks the near-end of the Yankees dynasty that I watched, idolized, and loved growing up. Only Derek Jeter now remains from the team which, in the formative years of my late childhood, won the World Series four out of five years in a row without the big-market free agent signings and steroid scandals. These legends of the late nineties—O’Neil, Pettitte, Tino, Bernie—surrounding Rivera during his farewell ceremony in Yankee Stadium resurfaced the memories of my childhood heroes: a gritty team of individuals who—on field and off—carried themselves a certain way, treated others a certain way, played and won the game a certain way.

Watching Rivera throw his final pitches, cry on the mound as he hugged Jeter and Pettitte before exiting his final game, and receive his final standing ovation overwhelms me with the emotions aroused by both the American Dream and the American Pastime. Both the end of a childhood era and the acceptance that the game, and life, move on. The prophet-like character Terrance Mann, in the famous baseball movie Field of Dreams, speaks to this deeply emotional significance of the game: “They’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters…The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of streamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again.”

Mariano’s job may not have been one that saved lives, but he certainly inspired them. My grandfather tells me about his childhood through the stories of Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio; I will tell my grandchildren that I had the honor of watching Mariano Rivera.

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