When Joe Girardi surprisingly sent Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter to take Mariano off the Yankee Stadium mound for this last time in his storied career you could see the Captain telling Rivera, “It’s time to go.” Mo calmly smiled and waved has way through a year filled with honors and tributes along his classy retirement tour, but on Thursday night he sobbed uncontrollably on Pettitte’s shoulder as adoring fans chanted his name. “I was bombarded with emotions and feelings that I couldn’t describe. Everything hit at that time. I knew that that was the last time,” he said after the game.
I can remember a time before Mariano Rivera was a Yankee, but it is a strain. When Mariano made his big league debut on May 23, 1995 I was a sophomore, at Bellport High School on Long Island and the only guy I knew who had a cell phone was Zach Morris. My biggest concerns were likely making weight for some wrestling match or scrapping together enough money to buy the new Raekwon album.
There are few things in life that are constant, unchanging, and reliable. For the better part of two decades Mariano Rivera embodied those qualities for Yankee fans. He showed up every night and did his job better than any other relief pitcher has ever done it. For someone who was universally considered the best in the world at his trade, Rivera carried himself with amazing grace and humility. I’ve never met Mariano Rivera, but I feel like I know him because for over 162 days a year, throughout 19 seasons, he was a small part of my life.
The Yankees won World Series titles my first three years of college, in 1998, 1999, and 2000. No player was more essential to those championships than the great Rivera. In those days we often showed up to the old Stadium on a whim and would buy bleacher tickets for as little as 8 bucks. We always pre-gamed with a 40 in the park near the bodega because as broke college kids we couldn’t afford to get drunk off the Stadium’s overpriced beers. My friends and I were convinced that if we all took our shirts off and screamed like idiots anytime the Yankees were trailing late in a game that it would inspire a rally. Somehow it always seemed to work.
My favorite Yankee team from my college years was the 2001 squad that came up just short of winning a world title. That team became a unifying presence and necessary distraction in the weeks following 9-11 for a devastated city that was just trying to pick up the pieces. Every clutch homerun from Scott Brosius or Tino Martinez only made it seem more destined that the Yankees would prevail and prove New York’s unwavering strength. It felt like an especially cruel twist of fate when the impeccable Rivera blew the save in the decisive game seven. Mariano handled this crushing defeat so honestly and professionally that in a way, it wound up adding to his legacy.
Twelve years later everything has changed except Mariano Rivera, his number 42, and his trademark cutter. The Stadium was torn down and rebuilt across the street, bleacher tickets cost a lot more than 8 dollars, and Yankees are limping to the finish of a playoff-less season. My friend Roach’s adorable baby daughter Sofia joined us at many of the games this year. Needless to say there were no 40s drank in the park and our shirts stayed on. Perhaps that’s why there were fewer late inning rallies. I doubt Sofia will remember much from this season as she is less than two years old. She eats popcorn in her ketchup stained little Robinson Cano jersey and claps along joyously to any music that plays over the stadium speakers. But someday her dad will be able to tell her that she saw the great Mariano Rivera pitch, just as my dad tells me about the massive homeruns he saw Mickey Mantle hit as a kid. Jeter was probably right when he jokingly told Mariano that it was time to go. All I’d like to tell him is thanks for staying so long.