No place does beatification like New York City. The Big Apple is the big hype. Derek Jeter has spent the past 17 years walking on water. Before him Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth did. And as great as those guys were, they were not necessarily the greatest. But they were the most legendary and that is what happens when you excel in New York City for the storied Yankees.
The latest chapter in the hagiography was written this week during the Major League All-Star game at New York's Citi Field, home to the merely mortal Mets but New York nonetheless. Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera - Mo to you and me - is retiring after a stellar 19-year career and his appearance during the eighth inning was a showstopper.
Both teams stood outside the dugout to applaud and all of the players left the field to leave Mo alone for the endless cheering from 45,000 devotees. It was most definitely a moment, one that was almost smothered by the predictably reverential tones and endless gushing from the broadcasters. But this time, every bit of it was richly deserved. At 43 years of age, the oldest player in baseball is so much more than Yankee hype.
Unlike Jeter, Mantle, DiMaggio and even Ruth, Rivera was the greatest to ever play his position and there is not a position in sports that is more results oriented than a closer in baseball. You are there to save the game. You come in to pitch the ninth inning, usually with your team winning. Depending on your performance they will either win or they will lose. There is no other criteria for success at this position and that is why much like goalies in hockey, the closer's spot has often been occupied by some of the games more renowned eccentrics.
However, the greatest of them all seems extremely normal and likeable, not to mention remarkably durable. No one has ever saved more games than the Panamanian and most likely nobody ever will. He sits atop the all-time leader list with 638. The next closest active player is 38-year-old Joe Nathan with 328 and, considering the best closers in baseball average between 30-40 saves per season, Nathan would need another 10 years at the top of his game to even entertain the notion of catching Rivera. It's not going to happen. Even this year, Rivera is second in baseball with 30 saves. He is not retiring because his performance has fallen off. A spiritual man, he says it is simply time to call it a career.
Far too often the Yankees have devolved into a headline-hogging soap opera and it's been Rivera who has kept it real. He understands his leadership role, not only to his team but to his game, and has gladly embraced it.
After the All-Star game he spoke of the pioneer who truly integrated American sports. "I represent Jackie Robinson," he said. Rivera received Robinson's number 42 as a rookie before every team in baseball retired the number in 1997 with only active players wearing it allowed to keep it. When he retires so does the game's most symbolic number. "This will be the last time wearing that number this year for anybody, but the legacy continues and we have to respect that," he said.
As he makes his way through his final season, there are tributes in every stadium he visits for the last time and while away grounds are enemy territory for the much-hated Yankees, there is only respect for Mo and understandably so. Instead of being continually feted, Rivera has insisted that at every one of his final stops he wants to meet and share time with the people who make baseball run, as opposed to those who run it.
He has met security guards, ushers, organists, mascots, cooks and kitchen staff. He thanks them before they can thank him. It's much more than a contrived photo-op and those he meets are genuinely touched. "I've been so blessed to be able to play this game, but we wouldn't be able to do it without the help and support of all these people behind the scenes," he said.
There have been so many skeletons protruding from baseball's closet over the years that it's nearly impossible not to be cynical. But Mo has continually beaten back the darkness with his class, his dignity, his durability and, most importantly, with his performance. Even if he is a Yankee, he let's you believe in baseball again. He will be missed.