By John Schmeelk
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I woke up this morning and I just felt sad. It clicked that there was a chance I wouldn’t be able to see Mariano Rivera pitch ever again. It’s easy to list the numbers and stats that detail Mariano’s greatness. It’s quite another to have witnessed it firsthand as cutter after cutter broke bat after bat and made the best hitters look helpless for 15 years.
Watching any athlete in any sport in my lifetime, I never felt more confident than I did when I watched Mariano Rivera run onto the mound to the heavy guitar of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” On second thought, it wasn’t confidence, or even faith. It was belief. He had done it so well for so long that whenever he didn’t, it felt like something just wasn’t right in the baseball world. I’m sure Yankee-haters mock sentiments like these, but I’ve seen the defeat as Rivera takes the mound to know that they understand his greatness as well.
No man is perfect. As Rivera often says after his rare bad outings, “I am not a machine, I am a man. I am flesh.” There was Game 7 against the Diamondbacks, which cost the Yankees a fourth consecutive title. Even that could have been avoided if Rivera doesn’t throw the ball into center field and Scott Brosius tries to turn a double play. Rivera played a role in the 2004 collapse as well, with two less-than-perfect performances with a chance to close down the series. Usually, those are bad moments that New York fans would never forget. But he has been so good that they have been forgiven. It was Rivera, not Derek Jeter, who was the most important member of the Yankees’ dynasty.
Aside from baseball, Rivera has also proven to be exactly what fans want out of an athlete. He is humble and never does anything to draw attention to himself. He constantly credits others for his success and exhibits the class and professionalism that few others do. No one has ever said a bad word about him and even the most hated opponents gave him credit.
Rivera did seem like a machine sometimes, a perfectly programmed baseball robot that did everything right and would go down as the best closer of all time. He hadn’t been on the DL for nine years. Age didn’t seem to have any effect on him. Can anyone really tell the difference between Rivera at 42 and Rivera at 33? Maybe a few miles per hour on the fastball, but the effectiveness hasn’t changed. He was invincible.
That’s what made this news so hard to take. Rivera was going to be the guy that went out on top, leaving the game at a time of his own choosing while still performing at the highest of levels. With a misstep in an outfield in Kansas City that might be taken away from him. There might not be a victory lap for a Yankee that deserved one more than anyone.
When I heard the news this morning, I tried to think of the last time I saw Mariano Rivera pitch. I was sure I hadn’t seen him yet this season despite going to a few games. I looked it up and found that I was right. The last time I saw Mariano Rivera pitch in person was at Game 5 of the ALDS last year, when he pitched a perfect shutout inning to give the Yankees one more chance to come back from a 3-2 deficit. I was so mad that the team had once again come up empty in the playoffs that I didn’t relish the moment or take any mental pictures, like I did when Jorge Posada or Bernie Williams were playing their final games, or when the old Yankees Stadium was in its final moments. I have no idea the last time I even watched Mariano Rivera on TV. I want to go back and watch his potential final inning against the Orioles on April 30th.
I don’t want that to be my final memory of Mariano Rivera. I want him to have his victory lap, and let Yankees fans show him exactly how much he has meant to them and the franchise. It might be selfish, but for those reasons Mariano Rivera should not retire, even if he planned to after the season. This isn’t how he should go out. Not Mariano Rivera. Not like this.
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