Friday, March 8, 2013

Newsletter Extra: Mariano Rivera

I originally wrote this last May, after Mariano Rivera suffered a season-ending knee injury in Kansas City. With Rivera expected to announce his retirement tomorrow, it seems a good time to bring it back.


My daughter is named for Mariano Rivera.

She was "Mariana," owing to her mother's deep and abiding love for the Yankees' closer, until about the ninth month of the pregnancy. As we got closer to her birth, my inability to correctly pronounce the name -- I couldn't quite get my accent around the "a" in the first syllable, leaving it flat -- led her mother to shift gears to "Marina," a name even my tortured diction couldn't butcher. Make no mistake about it, though -- her name is a tribute to the man.

That's who Mariano Rivera is: someone you can safely name your kid after, and, when some day she wants to know about why she has her name, be proud when you tell the story. Forget the baseball parts. Rivera isn't just about numbers -- 608, 2.21, 206 -- or even championships. He's not about a plaque in the Hall of Fame or a retired number on a wall. He's not even about a crowd standing and cheering in joy, in admiration, in love. No, Rivera is about the spaces in between the numbers, the equanimity with which he went about his job, the calm and the purpose and the class that I find myself in awe of. Rivera has given up series-losing home runs and World Series-ending hits, and was the same man in those moments that he was when in the middle of a pile of giddy Yankees celebrating yet another World Championship.

It runs deeper than that, though. In an era when we always wonder about the gap between the player and the person, when there's always that reserve, that reluctance to commit, that hesitation, there's never been a need to worry about Rivera. The quiet, hard-working, beloved man of faith who spent eight months trying to be the best teammate he could be spent the other four months as a quiet, hard-working, beloved man of faith trying to be the best husband, father and man he could be. In the latter days of his career, he's had to measure the pull of doing good outside of baseball against his loyalty to his teammates and the money he could make -- for doing that good -- in his career. Rivera has been responsible for so much good when he hasn't been holding a baseball in his hands, donating money and time and effort to make the world a better place for the people he could touch.

That's what made the scene so hard to watch. We know that Rivera has been struggling with whether to extend his career at each of the last few decision points. Since March, when Rivera said that he'd made his decision and would reveal it during the season, there's been a sense that this could finally be it, that we might be seeing the last days of Rivera. Yankee fans' panic over this has absolutely nothing to do with who would pitch the ninth inning; it's not a baseball loss, but a personal one. A generation of Yankee fans has no memory of a time when Mariano Rivera wasn't there at the end of baseball games, the evercool Bronx DJ mixing Metallica and Sinatra 60 times a year and getting 50,000 people to dance to his beat. Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada are missed. Derek Jeter is respected. Rivera…Rivera is essential.

We don't know how it's supposed to end. We know only that it's not supposed to end on a warning track in Missouri at 6:15 on a Thursday evening in May. It's not supposed to end with a stumble and a cry and a panicked round of Tweets. It's not supposed to end like this. Fans of the other 29 teams -- even fans of sports who don't particularly care for baseball -- know that it's not supposed to end like this. Mariano Rivera doesn't get carried away from baseball sitting on a cart wearing warmups and sneakers. He walks away from it in pinstripes, head held high, surrounded by teammates and fans, bathed in tears and cheers, and holding a baseball in his glove, one last 27th out, one last win secured, not for himself, but for everyone but him.

Selfishly, I want it to not be over. I don't ever want it to end, but when it does, I want to be there, on my feet, clapping until my hands hurt, tears streaming down my cheeks, trying to say, "Thank you for everything" from Section 414. I want there to be a little girl on my shoulders, taking it all in, who will grow up to display the qualities of her namesake: the dedication to others, the calm in the face of adversity, the endless reserves of inner peace. I want Marina to see Mariano and be proud to share his name.