By Jason Keidel
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NEW YORK (WFAN) — A few thin clouds stretch like pink gauze over the sky. A slight breeze in the press box pushes a few papers around. The bloody, yummy smell of cheese steak sandwiches slips through the door behind us. A montage of black and white memories beam from the titanic HD television above the center field wall. The lights pop on before the September sunset ducks behind the frieze for good.
I had just come from the clubhouse, along with a throng of reporters, swarming and barking at him like hyenas. Everyone wants to be like him. Everyone wants to be him. Everyone wants a piece of his peace.
Two years earlier, Sweeny introduced me to Mariano, on the same slice of lush, colored carpet. I told him I wanted to write a feature on him, expecting to be blown off, big-timed, or at least pawned off to some publicist/PR suit.
Not only did he agree to chat with me, he met me 20 minutes later, in the regal privacy of the empty Yankees’ dugout. He gave me nearly an hour of his infinitely more valuable time, during which we covered a kaleidoscope of topics, from sports to spirituality to his kinship with God.
So of course I would get the same access tonight. Who cares if he had only precious hours left in Yankee Stadium, the altar from which we worshiped each other. My inner narcissist just knew he would just stop what he was doing, part the waves of media, and talk only to me.
We waited around, pretending to be doing other things, not wanting to bother him, fidgeting with our pens, pads, and recorders, waiting for him to tell us it was all right, despite the fact that this was the allotted time for us to speak with the players before they pour out of the room for batting practice.
“Okay, guys,” he says. It is just about the last time Mariano Rivera will ever say that. Every moment, action, and affectation will be bookmarked and recorded until his last pitch, in a hollow park, against a forlorn franchise, in Texas.
And then we swarm him, stuffing small boxes with small red lights in his face, microphones and other glinting doodads. Three hairy arms jut under my chin, trying to get one last quote from the master.
Of course, some dolt decided to bogart the interview with questions about bobblehead dolls. If one useless question weren’t enough, he doubled-down with more hard-hitting queries about how a truck with dolls didn’t make it to the ballpark in time.
“How does that make you feel, Mariano?” he asked.
“What can you do?” Rivera responded in his soft monotone.
“Yes,” reporter insisted, “but do you feel it reflects upon you negatively?”
“Maybe we should talk about something else,” Rivera said, pulling up his pants, acutely aware that we were short on time, and that the reporter was woefully short on intelligent inquiries.
“Loved your Hector Camacho piece,” I said to Wallace Matthews, who used to cover boxing for the New York Post.
“Thank you very much,” he said, surprised and grateful that someone in this room of jackals would be so complimentary. “Thank you,” he repeated while he thumbed my press pass, squinting at the letters. “Thank you…Jason.”
I had just spent 20 minutes chatting with Curtis Granderson, perhaps the most articulate, sensible, and affable athlete I’ve ever met. Then I looked at Robinson Cano, and noticed his locker was oddly empty. Didn’t want that karma around me. Then Alfonso Soriano totally blew me off. “No time,” he said, bluntly.
Sweeny Murti, as always, was a divine host, tour guide, and seeing eye dog during the night. It seems the Yankees are very particular about where we go and when we go there. When I lifted my phone to take a snapshot of Rivera’s empty locker, a 20-something woman leaped at me like a leopard.
“No photography!” she snapped.
I’m hardly Walter Iloos, yet she ordered me to show her the blurred shot of a wall and demanded I delete it. “Here,” I showed her. “That’s all I got.”
I wanted to say some other things, but I repressed my inner New Yorker. Could I tell her this is the last chance any of us will have to touch greatness? That even the most hardened beat writer softens at the sight of the pitcher nonpareil. What does she know about that? When Rivera’s career began she was in grade school. This is probably the last job she had in mind before she left Oberlin to chase her Carrie Bradshaw fantasies.
By the time I saw Sweeny again, the incident had blossomed into something of world renown, as though I were some type of terrorist plotting the destruction of the Yankees, Yankee Stadium, hot dogs, peanuts, and apple pie.
“She told you?” I said incredulously.
“Yeah,” Sweeny said. “Don’t sweat it.”
“Sorry, guys,” Rivera said as he hurried from the high carpet of the clubhouse. The pack parted while he sneaked through. He paused, turned around, and lapped his arm around me. “I will be available later,” he said. “I promise.”
“Are you excited?” I asked, grinning like a kid on Santa’s lap. “Nervous?”
The latter was just plain stupid. I’m asking the most clutch player in the history of pitching or any position in any sport if he’s nervous about a regular season game that has no playoff meaning.
After a while it becomes redundant. How does one convey the importance of Mariano Rivera? How do you apply words to a man to whom no superlative suitably applies?
How does he do it? How did he do it? How was he so impossibly perfect? How has he survived the cauldron of playoff baseball for 18 years? How has he, in the heat of playoff baseball, remained as cool as the fall twilight painting his curtain call?
You know the rest. Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter crawled across the infield, letting the fans build the applause to deafening decibels, the crescendo crowing the two icons as they fetched the third, taking him home.
While everyone noted the gratuitous gifts, the retirement tour that made Kareem Abdul-Jabbar blush, the world was simpatico on Rivera’s historical heft, his innate decency, and his genius on the mound. The laconic, iconic hurler finished his final home game with the lowest ERA (2.20) for any pitcher in history to throw at least 1,000 innings.
I had this elaborate, Charlie Rose/Roy Firestone summit all set up. I planed to make him think, laugh, and both of us cry. We would both leave the interview better people. He would remember my will, my wit, and my historically clever questions.
And yet “Nervous?” was the last thing I will ever say to Mariano Rivera.
Why not? There was really nothing more to say, anyway. He speaks for himself, without saying a word.
Email Jason at Jakster0529@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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