By Jason Keidel
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Yesterday, I made my annual pilgrimage to the press box at Yankee Stadium, keeping a de facto date night with Sweeny Murti. (My boss sarcastically calls me Sweeny’s boyfriend because I wrote a puff piece about Mr. Murti last summer. So be it. My soft side still beams with pride.)

There I was, all set to harpoon Seattle after 17 straight losses, as the Sub-Mariners (Marvel Comics pun intended) have become a hauntingly bad baseball team, juxtaposed perfectly with the Yankees, italicizing the baseball chasm between the have and have-nots. No doubt the debate whirls over what the Bombers must forfeit for Felix Hernandez now that his team has plunged down the standings, vanishing from the playoff race.

But along the way to another ornery missive, I met a relief pitcher for the first time.

“Mariano, this is Jason,” said Sweeny, who kindly introduced me to the pitcher nonpareil. In his half-uniform of pinstriped pants and dark blue t-shirt, and an awestruck child in tow, the greatest pitcher to wear a Yankees uniform shook my hand.

I pitched an idea to Mo: a series of pieces I’m considering about a select few athletes like Rivera, transcendent talents who are measured by more pliable standards than the rigid stats on a scorecard.

Inside the plush, carpeted, gadget-lathered locker room, stuffed with leather chairs, plasma televisions, and every amenity imaginable for athletic royalty, Rivera stood by his locker with that kid tethered to his hip. The young man was clearly part of a program, a charitable endeavor, and the kid was appropriately awestruck by Mariano’s humble yet powerful mien.

The question was…would I be like the kid? I’d never met Rivera. And while we like to think we’re above the childish impulses of hero worship and misguided but palpable projection upon those we see on a screen, I was once a child before I became a man, and hence a Yankees fan before a sportswriter. So it would be plausible (even though unprofessional) for me to regard Rivera with adolescent anxiety.

He seemed to like my premise, nodding thoughtfully when listening to my questions and making hard eye contact when answering.  He said he’d give me a few minutes at his locker after batting practice.

Then Sweeny told me that BP would run late and that the media isn’t allowed in the locker room at 6 p.m. I tracked Mo down and told him this. He paused and considered an alternative, and then instructed me to meet him in the dugout at 5:45 p.m., where he was waiting for me, of course, at 5:45 p.m. We squatted on the blue padding inside the dugout; his black glove and cap nestled between us. He was on my left, and we chatted over the shrieking clamor of kids begging for autographs as they leaned over the padded rail from the infield dirt.

Rivera treated me like a brother. More, he regarded me with the respect given the owner who signs his paycheck. He could have big-timed me, or he could have (rather reasonably) said he was too busy. Or he could have asked me to make an appointment for another day. Instead, after signing a bucket of baseballs for those frothing kids, he offered all the minutes I needed. In fact, I had to end the interview, not him. I felt guilty that I took up his exponentially more valuable time. Yeah, he’s like that.

Simply, Rivera makes no sense. The adage, of course, is that when something looks too good to be true, it normally is. Rivera is the lone exemption I’ve seen in my 41 years on Earth. A rather religious man, he knows the notion of Original Sin, yet he flashes none of it, at least in public, though being the best player on the New York Yankees stretches the public tarp over even private affairs for as long as you play in pinstripes.

While we’re all imbued with sin – or error, for our agnostic and atheistic friends –

Mariano cloaks his with a spiritual elegance that comes from faith. Dissecting deities aside, there are men who believe in something greater than themselves. And there’s nothing offensive about his beliefs or his way of conveying them I’m not even religious, yet I could hear him joust for Jesus for days.

Rivera has somehow avoided the cultural quicksand of his baseball brethren. Frankly, if I had Rivera’s resplendent life I’d be affected. I’d lose track of my ego, id, and lid. There’s a reason we have “Celebrity Rehab” and the like. Young men (I don’t feel qualified to speak for women) teeming with testosterone, overwhelmed with myriad appetites – a lust to bust all rules and conquer all things that can be touched – are bound to join Johnny Law for a tango outside a nightclub at 2 a.m. It’s what we are. Doc and Darryl are the dual New York faces of forces men can’t control. In fact, it’s a wonder anyone – to appropriately paraphrase the title of a Jim Morrison biography – gets out alive. How did Derek Jeter, obscenely handsome, rich, famous, and fabulous, bask in NYC’s glow without burning in its glare? We’ve had our differences regarding the captain, but no one doubts his sublime ability to dodge Page Six despite all the temptation. But even Jeter has emotional warts. I couldn’t find one on Rivera.

How fitting that he’s the final 42, a number immortalized by Jackie Robinson – the face of grace against racism – and finally retired by the lone man with the weight and wisdom to wear it with equal nobility. He finished the day the way he started it, with his elegant, understated dominance – a nine-pitch, ninth inning, securing his 26th save and his microscopic ERA (1.83).

Call me a shill, a homer, or worse. You already have. But it doesn’t make this missive any less true or Mariano Rivera any less of a man, a role model, or a corporeal legend so supreme that he borders on myth. In fact, I put “Pitcher” third or fourth on his list of accomplishments. So would he. And that’s his genius. Applaud this man while you can.

There will be a day when he doesn’t pitch anymore, when his higher power springs out of the dugout, taps his wrist and calls for another closer. No matter your stars or stripes, that will be a sad day.

Why does stardom and its inherent shards corrupt everyone but Mariano Rivera? It’s better not to think about it and enjoy the man, while we can.

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