This isn’t supposed to happen. It can’t end like this. There is an overwhelming sense of denial that comes through: that we have to be dreaming, that this has to be some sort of joke. The Greatest Of All Time (or so we dubbed him), the one who seems immortal and impervious to all earthly manifestations of age and decline, is crumpled on a warning track in Kansas City, clutching his knee and writhing in pain. The game hasn’t even started.
I say it to anyone who asks: I started following Rivera’s career because I fell in love with his name. The subtle way the vowels melt with the R and the N…maybe it’s a foolish way to pick your favorite player, but I did it with every team I follow. I was rewarded in this case (and with the Devils, too, where Patrik Elias has had a long, extremely productive career). A 12 year-old girl doesn’t always realize what she’s getting into, that loyalties, if they are to be respected, don’t get thrown out or changed at will. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but Mariano Rivera makes it easy.
Days spent away from the internet are rare in today’s universe, but when you do so, you don’t expect to come back to the news that Mariano Rivera, of all people, was taken off the field on a cart after injuring his knee while shagging flies. In the ever-changing world of baseball, Mariano’s supposed to be your constant, your Penny while you’re Desmond stuck on the Island. Other players get hurt. Other players get ill. Other players age and decay. Not Mariano. Never Mariano.
I don’t remember the first time I saw Mariano Rivera pitch in person, but it took a while. The first few games I ever went to involved the Yankees losing or winning by too large a margin; but other moments I remember quite clearly. There was the streak of scoreless postseason innings in 1999 and 2000, the Game Seven heroics in 2003…I don’t need to go into details about these things. You’ll remember them quite clearly.
We watch sports for various reasons. Sometimes it’s the thrill of the competition, sometimes it’s because it provides our deepest bonds with our parents or siblings or friends, and sometimes it’s our escape. The celebration, the glorification of what the human body can achieve in peak form is a distraction from a harsher truth: life is short, and youth is shorter. Now take that perfect human specimen, endow him with a sense of humility that will bypass most of us, and give him the ability to throw a pitch so good that he can make a nearly 20-year career by throwing just that one, and you can begin to understand the deification. Sure, there are setbacks and (very) occasional blown saves, but they are the exception that proves the rule.
I remember a moment from the 2009 postseason. It’s Game Three of the ALCS, the Yankees are in Anaheim—that place where the Yankees had so much trouble playing in the last decade—and Yankee Stadium has thrown its doors open for us to come and watch. In the ninth inning, after misplaying a bunt, Rivera is on the mound with runners on first and third with no one out and a tie score. Somehow, some way, he escapes the jam without allowing a run. Like the way Pippin ascertains that it’ll be okay because they have the White Wizard, we also ascertain that it will be okay somehow because we have Mariano.
When does a really good baseball player cross the line and become a legend? When did we decide Mariano wasn’t just the best at his job now but the best ever? Was it after his heroics in 2003? Was it later? Was it as late as his phenomenal 2008 season, where he walked just six batters all year? We remember, he needed shoulder surgery after that year; the greatest season he’s had since 1996, and he’s done it all with an injured shoulder. As die-hard baseball fans, we know how scary the words “shoulder injury” can be when concerning a pitcher; for any of us who have ever hurt our shoulders, we’ll know just how incapacitating it can get. You’re not supposed to be able to throw a baseball 90 miles an hour when you have calcifications in your shoulder (if you’re supposed to throw a baseball that hard at all); never mind have one of the best years of your career.
There’s a photo I took of Mariano in 2010. It’s the last time I saw him pitch in a postseason game. He’s standing on the mound, his back to the fans, holding the baseball, head down, as though he’s learning all of its secrets. Is he praying? Is he strategizing? Is he thinking of something that has nothing to do with baseball? It’s blasphemy even to suggest it, but part of you wonder, is this what G-d would look like, if he were human and a baseball player, and he was about to make some important decision? Mariano isn’t G-d, of course, and maybe if I knew him I would know his faults, but I don’t. I am, after all, still a fan, and part of the fun is keeping the barriers in place. I can pretend he has no faults. We can pretend. On a team that’s no stranger to tabloid pages, to accusations of centaur paintings and less savory rumors, we can pretend that Mariano is our bastion of constancy, our refuge for when all else goes astray. He’s never given us a reason to doubt it—maybe we don’t even need to pretend.
It’s not news that 2012 was quite possibly going to be Mariano Rivera’s final season. He had stated that he made his decision prior to spring training, something that Mike Mussina did before finally winning 20 games in 2008. For the best, though, we only ever want the best. If this was to be Mariano’s farewell tour, we wanted MAR-I-AN-O chants at the Stadium while he was on the mound in the ninth inning of an elimination game in the World Series, needing just three more strikes for the Yankees’ 28th championship. You might say that we’re spoiled as Yankees fans, that we want an awful lot, but in this case you would be wrong. We didn’t want this for us—or, at least, not only for us. We wanted it for him, because of what Mo’s given us, because of what he’s given baseball, he deserved no less.