In the midst of their current tarnished Alex Rodriguez chapter, the New York Yankees are saying good-bye to their greatest relief pitcher—and most beloved player.
It is no small irony that Mariano Rivera is playing his last season at the same time the Yankees deal with the ugly side of the game’s heaviest punishment in decades.
As the A-Rod sideshow played out at U.S. Cellular Field, a quiet and heart-felt session played quietly before Tuesday’s game as Rivera met privately with 13 people—fans and White Sox employee. It is a Q and A session Rivera has held in each ballpark he visits this season, something he requested so he could meet the people “behind the scenes’’ and those who have watched him.
“I wanted to do something special with the people I haven’t had a chance to meet,’’ he told them.
“I want to be able to say thanks for what you guys mean for baseball,’’ he told them. “For me, it’s a privilege to share with you my experiences, so thank you very much.’’
He sat on a chair informally beside Yankees media relations director Jason Zillo, who opened the session saying Rivera had come to him several years ago saying when it was his time to retire, he wanted to do “something meaningful to him and the people.
“I’ve been lucky enough to be in these in each city, and we realize it’s become so much more than we imagined,’’ Zillo said. “He believes baseball is communal and that we’re all here because we love baseball. You may not love the New York Yankees or Mo, but we all love baseball.’’
But it was clearly a love fest for the select few–most of them Sox fans but a few Yankees fans—and for the guest of honor.
“We’re from different backgrounds and races, but we’re here together because of baseball,’’ Rivera said. “It doesn’t matter where we’re from. We love the game and that’s why we’re here.’’
Rivera met the husband and wife who displayed the famous banner in the outfield at Sox Park after baseball resumed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack. The sign read “Chicago [heart] NY’’.
Rivera told of how he came to wear the No. 42—he wore 58 when he first game up in 1995, was sent down and then given No. 42 when he returned.
“I had no idea about the number until 1997,’’ he said of Jackie Robinson’s number and baseball’s decision to retire the number that year.
Rivera was given permission to continuing wearing it as the last player to have it.
“I learned about Mr. Jackie Robinson. For me, it’s a privilege, and now to know I would be the last one to were it was a challenge,’’ Rivera said. “I saw the movie `42’ and I don’t think I could do such things,’’ he said of Robinson’s struggles breaking baseball’s color line. “He went through hell, but here we are.’’
Rivera, baseball’s all-time saves leader with 643, will be the latest shining chapter of Yankees history. But he showed why he is so beloved by his teammates as he asked each person about themselves and their own “baseball stories.’’
When one transplanted New Yorker told how he raised his three sons to be Yankees fans and of helping coach them, Rivera stopped him.
“I have to ask you how you can coach your sons, because my kids tell me I don’t know anything,’’ Rivera said to laughs.
The Sox honored Rivera before Tuesday’s game with three gifts–a the framed lineup card from his first game at Comiskey Park July 4, 1995; a photo collage of the Sept. 18, 2001 game when the Yankees played at Comiskey Park in the first game after the Sept. 11 attack, and a check from Chicago White Sox Charities made out to the Jackie Robinson Foundation in Rivera’s honor.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi said the unique “farewell tour’’ has been “special.’’
“The excitement that visiting ballparks have when he comes into the game—and Mo really only comes in a visiting ballpark when the [home] club is losing. He’s gotten a ton of appreciation. I have people yelling at me to pitch him in a game—a game that we might be losing. People say `I drove 1,000 miles to see him pitch and I want to see him pitch.’
“I think the clubs have done a really nice job of honoring him, and I think he has enjoyed it. I think all of us have enjoyed it as well.’’
When one fan thanked him “for re-defining what it is to be a Yankee,’’ Rivera was almost contrite.
“I always try to do it right. I’m not a perfect man, but I always to do things right, and that comes from when I was a little boy and the foundation my mother and father gave. I grew up with those things, and the Lord allowed me to play baseball. I learned the right way, to play the game the right way and respect it.
“No matter how big you are, you won’t be bigger than the game.
“My father said `when you leave this house, you represent Rivera.’ The Yankees are like my family and I represent them like that.’’