By Jason Keidel
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Like most boys, I dove into idolatry long before my voice cracked and croaked a few octaves, before I sprouted a few hairs on my chest, and lathered shaving cream across my chin.
All of us thumb through comic books at some point, taking some secret, vicarious flight through the clouds with Superman, swing through cities with Spider Man, or drive through the squalid streets of Gotham with Batman. Anyone born & raised north of Central Park South in the ‘70s or ‘80s found their preteen tableaus in a place called “West Side Comics” on 86th and Columbus – a smoke-stained, tobacco pungent dive that doubled as a video arcade. It’s where many of us congregated over a Coke, a smile, the newest issue of X-Men, and a game of Tempest.
But most of my friends and I found our heroes on the gridiron, hardwood, or baseball diamond – largely, I suspect, because they were real humans, even if they were imbued with inhuman athletic splendor. So between my Saturday synagogue (baseball cards) and Sunday church (NFL games from 1 p.m. until 7 p.m.) I was very well covered with hero worship. Perhaps like many of you, I dreaded the ticking rhythm of the “60 Minutes” stopwatch after the final football game (there were no Sunday night games 30 years ago), knowing that I was perilously close to class the next morning.
But as adults, most of us are able to distinguish between heroes and humans, ultimately learning that they are the same.
Perhaps growing up in Manhattan (or any borough) developed a membrane that stopped us from stargazing. Back in the day it was nothing to bump into Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Robert DeNiro, or Christopher Walken walking across Columbus Circle, or ducking into a checker cab on 72nd Street. New Yorkers just aren’t that impressed by people just because they appear on a television. It’s sort of our implicit pride. At least 90 percent of bystanders drooling by the bright clusters of cameras and movie trailers on a frostbitten street corner, shivering in the bone-ratting cold just to get a glimpse of Zac Efron, are tourists. Same with those suckers who stand, scream, and dance behind Matt Lauer and Al Roker every morning. New Yorkers just stroll by them, shake their heads in disgust, and move on.
While working for various sports publications, I’ve had the good fortune to meet some of the best athletes on Earth, but I’ve always known that they are just people who happen to have hit the DNA jackpot, whose Creator randomly waved the wand and dropped athletic faerie dust on the dude.
But there’s been one exception in my life.
And Mariano Rivera is that exception. When I went to Yankee Stadium last summer with Sweeny Murti, attended Joe Girardi’s pre-game confab with the press, and then strolled through the locker room and saw Jeter, A-Rod, Swisher, etc. splash after shave and comb their hair under clouds of talcum powder, I wasn’t impressed.
And then Murti helped me meet Mo. Like everyone else, he shaves and showers and slides his slacks on one leg at a time. (Yes, I actually watched him dress from his skivvies into his pinstripes.) He is entirely normal, yet he isn’t. And you must meet him to understand the dichotomy.
The man makes me reconsider my neutrality, my New Yorker’s indifference to stardom. And, ironically, it’s because Mariano Rivera is the last person to tell you he’s important. Indeed, had Rivera told me he was the popcorn vendor I would have believed him. Not only is he not physically intimidating. He handles himself with such innate decency, humility and pious equanimity, that you don’t get it.
And that’s what makes him so overwhelming. Rivera walks, floats, glides in a tangible, almost physical nimbus. Call it energy, aura, or karma, but the man simply isn’t like anyone else.
Say what you will about religion or religious people (I don’t have a God, which explains a few things), but some guys get it, whatever IT is, a confluence of confidence and modesty, a direct line to the Deity that isn’t coerced or contrived.
Rivera is so comfortable with himself, at such ease with his God and godless hacks like me, that he seems to sprout a spiritual stun gun, rendering mortals inert in his understated divinity.
Just 30 minutes after meeting me, and clearly not knowing much about me, Rivera agreed to meet me, that night, in the Yankees’ dugout, alone, to discuss whatever I wanted. And while we’d all like to think we’re still hard wired to our humble beginnings, who among us can say we’d handle his stardom with such grace?
All during our interview, during which I constantly pinched myself, Mo was tugged by throngs of prepubescent boys, who were begging for his autograph. As if to apply the last strokes on the Norman Rockwell moment, Rivera was entertaining a phalanx of underprivileged kids that afternoon, part of the Yankees’ “Hope Week,” and still made time to talk to a writer he’d never met. Perhaps he thought that if I were good enough for Sweeny, I was good enough for Mariano. Yeah, he rolls like that.
I broke every tenet implicitly tethered to the reporter. I wasn’t objective, reasonable, or efficient. I drooled during half the interview, took ten minutes to ask the most mundane question, and fought every impulse to ask for his John Hancock.
“My wife would love your autograph, Mo. Do you mind?”
“Sure. what’s her name?”
“Isn’t that your name?”
“Heh. Well, no. I’m Jason. She’s, er, Jessica. We call her Jay for short.”
The pitcher nonpareil needs no defending on the diamond, either. And we need to strip the variables from our baseball lexicon when we talk about Mo, most notably two in the vague praise, “Rivara is probably one of the bestclosers in baseball.”
And with all due respect to starting pitchers, you could argue that Rivera is the best pitcher ever to wear a baseball cap. Buster Olney, ESPN analyst and former Yankees beat reporter for The New York Times, said there’s more separation between Rivera and the next best closer than there is for any player, at any position, in any sport. Any objections?
Dennis Eckersley is the second best closer I’ve seen, and he’s not in Rivera’s orbit. Indeed, “Eck” best known for surrendering the most celebrated homer since Bill Mazeroski (Kirk Gibson’s blast in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series).
And while we all winced when we saw Rivera crumble on the warning track last week, writhing while he hugged his newly torn right knee, you had to think, at least momentarily, that this was the end. And it felt so incongruoous considering he was pitching like he was still 30, as always, in eternal defiance of physics while flouting the inevitable, chucking his cutter at a flummoxed Father Time.
Our only hope was that the devout Christian with a biblical lust for conquest would simply pray and play his way back into shape. And after a few agonizing days of speculation, while leaning on his crutches, Rivera declared that he “would not go out like that,” to the eternal relief of a country, a continent, and perhaps a planet. Even the most rabid Yankees detractor had to smile. Rivera is the lone caveat in baseball lore and war. Indeed, if two teams brawled on a baseball diamond, they’d probably stop just long enough to let Rivera walk through, before bashing each other again.
Charles Barkley was right when he said he’s not a role model, even if he said it for the wrong reason – a preemptive strike before his next malfeasance, from late night barroom fights to some gob of wayward spit splashing a young girl courtside. (For some reason the chubby, cherubic power forward can get away with all mayhem and still be adored by most, including yours truly.)
But Rivera welcomes his status in the stratosphere, and somehow owns his craft and our hearts without even trying, a man of faith who stirs a faithless city. Sixteen years into his transcendent baseball crusade, I discovered that he couldn’t recite the lyrics to his theme song, Metallica’s heavy metal anthem, “Enter Sandman.”
“I don’t even know the words,” Rivera recently said. “I listen to Christian music.”
Perhaps he doesn’t know the profundity of his time in our town, that he has hypnotized us in ways not even we understand. New Yorkers, beyond the blue-collar grit we see at Rangers games and the money and marble of Madison Avenue we see at Yankees games, are spellbound by a man who still speaks in a hopelessly thick Panamanian accent.
In a city as large, diverse, and divided as New York, the Big Apple, where sporting allegiances are decided young and decidedly rancorous – you can’t root for the Jets and Giants, Knicks and Nets, Rangers and Devils, or Yanks and Mets – Rivera has somehow remolded the prickly discourse. Even Mets fans, even Red Sox fans, tip their caps to this man, who is so appropriately the final bearer of baseball royalty – No. 42.
We can recite his stats, his mastery, and his microscopic postseason ERA. But like a trip to a rainforest, pyramid, or any place splashed across postcards, the devil is in the details, in the nuance that can’t be captured by a camera because it must be felt. And while it sounds exorbitant to compare a man to mythology, just ask anyone who has been around Mariano Rivera.
Dave Robertson blew a save the other night, and the city sighed. Not because we dislike Dave Robertson, who has the electric arm and the elastic memory of a big-time reliever, but because he’s not Mariano Rivera. And the hopeless comparisons stretch far beyond the conventional, or the ancient machinations of balls and strikes, pitch counts, peanuts and Cracker Jacks. It’s about something more, something Mo. And you must meet the man to understand he’s not just a man.
Mariano Rivera must leave us someday. We’re just not ready today. Or tomorrow. Or ever. We want the impossible from the Final 42. And since he’s given it to us for so long, we can’t tell if he’s hero or human. He’s the closest I’ve come to each, and both.
Do you agree that Mariano is the greatest Yankee since Babe Ruth? Offer your thoughts and comments in the section below…