This is a baseball post.
A little over ten years ago, I had just graduated from law school and was spending the summer in New Haven. One day in early July, some friends and I went down to New York. We'd seize any excuse to avoid doing what we were supposed to be doing, which was studying for the bar exam. And our excuse that day was a Yankees-Red Sox game.
I was about one-tenth the baseball fan I am now, but I appreciated the rivalry. And my boyfriend at the time was a lifelong Yankees fan. Still, I was looking forward to some post-game shopping downtown far more than the actual game.
It was one of the rare weekday afternoon games. Reading about it now, I can see that it was a really good one: Pedro Martinez versus Mike Mussina, a 2-1 walk-off win for the Yanks. But like I said, I wasn't much of a baseball fan then.
What I did notice was the Yankees pitcher who relieved Mussina, the one who entered the game at the top of the ninth when the score was 1-1.
"I really liked that pitcher," I told my boyfriend. "The one who came in when they played 'Enter Sandman.'"
"You mean the closer?" he said.
Yes, I meant the closer, although I couldn't have told you then what a closer was. (And he got a win that day, not a save.) I liked the quiet way he trotted on to the field; the unhurried, self-contained way he moved on the mound. He seemed almost out of place, like he didn't belong on a baseball field. "Otherworldly," people have said.
Back then, they weren't preceding every mention of his name with "The Great" the way they do now. Halfway through his career, he was just a very good closer, albeit one with four World Series rings.
The boyfriend? He's now my husband. As for the pitcher, I decided then and there that he was my favorite Yankee. And that's why I get to say that I loved Mariano before everyone loved Mariano.
It has been a pure delight to watch him these past ten years. It's hard to separate my appreciation for Mariano from my enjoyment of baseball, because they've felt like the same thing. There is, for me, no better way to spend a summer evening than at home with the Yankees on, half-listening while I do something else (my husband says I only like baseball because I can "watch" it without really watching it) -- and then, in the ninth inning, to put aside whatever I'm doing, because Mariano is coming in.
For years, we went to at least one Yankees game every season. My Mariano t-shirt is a boys' size large because they didn't sell Rivera shirts in ladies' sizes in 2004; all the girls at the ballpark were wearing Jeter shirts back then (or Posada, inexplicably). And I've been lucky: I can only remember being at three games where he didn't pitch (two were last year, when he was injured). Every time I saw him on the field, it felt like watching baseball royalty, a tell-your-grandkids-about-it moment. The ones at Yankee Stadium were the best, of course. The song (which he doesn't like) wouldn't be a favorite of mine, to be honest, if it weren't for the association. But... well, let's just say that I bought the lullaby version for my newborn son.
This article by Tom Verducci and this one by James Traub will tell you all you need to know about the statistics, the records, the cutter, the story. Verducci's cover story in the current SI isn't online yet, but there's this, from the intro:
Rivera's personage is so humble, godly even, that his legacy will go on. Few players in any sport have retired with more reverence from his peers. "Probably not since Koufax have we seen anyone leave the game with so much respect," says Joe Torre, Rivera's manager with the Yankees for four of his five World Series ChampionshipAfter the horrible injury last year, this season has felt like a gift. He's the oldest player in baseball (and still the best closer playing). And he has a rich life outside baseball. It's time for him to go. This season has been an uncomfortable one for Yankees fans, but fittingly, he's saved it: One of the few bright spots has been the chance to say farewell to this extraordinary player, this extraordinary person.
They''ll play the song for the last time tonight in Yankee Stadium. I don't think I'll ever watch baseball the same way again.