By Sweeny Murti
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The formal press conference was merely a reminder. Not that we should have forgotten. Mariano Rivera is one of the classiest men we will ever come across in professional sports.
Classy in the way he described wearing the Yankee uniform:
Classy in the way he said he wanted to be remembered as a player:
Classy in the way he wore #42, the last to ever do so:
The irony in a press conference is that all eyes are on Rivera, and he is the furthest thing from a “look at me” person you will ever meet. That’s why, as Tino Martinez told me earlier this week, that opponents can’t find their way to hate Mariano. There are no crazy shows on the mound after striking you out, only a simple walk off the mound and a handshake with teammates. Respect all the way around.
And Mariano shares that respect with everyone he meets. I can’t remember anything other than a thoughtful response to any question I’ve posed after a game, win or lose. And frankly, it’s only after a loss that Mariano is part of the story. He makes a win so ho-hum and doesn’t want attention for it. He acts as though he has simply done his job and nothing more.
And when he is responsible for the loss, there is no one better at calmly explaining, “That’s baseball. You can do nothing.” The big ones hurt, no doubt, but just like he is on the mound, his demeanor rarely changes. I can remember Mariano answering hundreds of questions from wave after wave of reporters after Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, his most famous blown save.
And even that loss he would later see as a blessing. Teammate Enrique Wilson was supposed to be on American Airlines flight 587 from New York to the Dominican Republic on November 12, 2001, eight days after Game 7 of the World Series. When Mariano and the Yankees famously lost Game 7 in Arizona, and there would be no parade and championship celebration, Wilson moved his flight date up. Over 200 people died on November 12, 2001 when flight 587 crashed in Queens. Wilson was not one of them. Rivera would later say that winning that World Series wasn’t meant to be and that his teammate was alive as a result.
His accomplishments on the field do not need to be recounted here. I wrote here (http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2011/09/19/sweeny-mariano-riveras-best-save/) in 2011 about my favorite of Mariano’s 600+ saves. Off the field, there are so many other little memories I have that I cherish.
I remember watching all the young Spanish-speaking players gathered around Mariano’s locker during spring training, all sitting on the carpet as Mariano sat in his chair, leading what looked like story hour in Mr. Rivera’s kindergarten class. He taught lessons about baseball and life.
I once saw Mariano brush back his own son with a pitch. It was several spring trainings ago, on Field 3 well after the morning workout. I wandered out to make a phone call and saw Mariano throwing batting practice to his two oldest sons Mariano Jr. and Jafet. Jafet could not have been much more than five years old when he stood in the batter’s box that day and pointed just like Babe Ruth and called his shot. Mariano laughed. He lobbed his next pitch inside, and laughed again as Jafet bailed out of the box. Yes it’s true—the only person I ever saw Mariano throw at on purpose was his own son.
The respect with which he has treated me over the years is probably as great a gift as I could ask. Mariano smiled broadly and actually hugged me when he found out I was engaged. He smiled broadly and chatted politely when he met my wife, a chance meeting at a movie theatre on a day off. And he paused during a press conference following his record-breaking 602nd career save in 2011 to tell everybody in the room to congratulate me, not him necessarily, because I had just become a father a week earlier.
What more can I possibly say about the man?
Mariano said it was a privilege to wear the Yankee uniform. The privilege, Mariano, was watching you wear it.
Will there ever be another class-act athlete quite like Mariano? Sound off below…