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On April 6th, my little brother and I bought Yankees-Twins bleacher tickets on a whim. The game ended up being rained out and rescheduled for September 19th.
Fast forward to September 18th. The Yankees gave one up to the Blue Jays, and I realized that I might be there to witness Mariano Rivera’s record-breaking 602nd save on the 19th. My brother had to work that day, as most people do on Monday afternoons. (Last week, I actually implored him not to accept the job for the sole reason that I wanted him to come to the game. Lesson here: always listen to your big sister.) My pops, a lifelong Yanks fan who grew up in the South Bronx, ended up joining me, which was awesome.
When I learned who was starting for the Bombers, I was a little less hopeful that we would witness history (sorry, A.J.). The stadium was buzzing, anyway.
It turned out, I had reason to worry. The game went like this: The Yankees score a few in the first inning and again in the second. All the while, A.J. is pitching well. Very well. I am pretty sure that there won’t be a save situation today. I have never been more disappointed that my team is holding a strong lead. The Twins score in the fourth, A.J. starts to implode, and then shockingly gets out of a bases loaded jam. The bullpen stirs.
Then A.J. actually implodes in the fifth. I admit, I feel a little guilty for wanting to see No. 602 so badly (but I know I wasn’t alone there). The Twins score two more, making the score 5-3, and Girardi calls upon Cory Wade with two Twins aboard. Wade allows just one of Burnett’s runs to score. From that point on, it’s business as usual at the stadium. Rafael Soriano pitches a scoreless seventh and David Robertson pitches a scoreless eighth.
Well, it’s business as usual, except for one thing…in the bottom of the seventh and eighth innings, Yankees fans are actually rooting against Yankee hitters. Every time the Yankees seem poised to break the game open, the fans are torn. If the Yankees’ lead increases to more than three runs, the game will no longer be a save situation. While I can’t bring myself to actively cheer against my team, I secretly hope that we will hear Metallica at the start of the ninth. As Nick Swisher stands at the plate in the eighth, there are people in the bleachers chanting, “Double play! Double play!” And he hits right into one, setting up No. 602.
Mariano’s first two pitches are balls. I wonder if the calm and steady closer, who rarely shows emotion, is feeling nervous. (Postgame, Jorge Posada reports that he asked Mo about those first two, to which the closer replied: “I had no idea where those pitches were going.”) The woman next to me, who has a camera with a telephoto lens, tells me that she sees bullpen coach Mike Harkey biting his nails. Later, Harkey will literally pick Mariano up off the ground in a congratulatory hug.
My heart is pounding. We are all standing. The stadium is nowhere near full, but it sounds full.
One pop up, one ground out and one strike out later: history. Everyone cheers. Everyone slaps each other five. I hug my dad and two strangers. Mariano Rivera now holds the record for the most career saves: 602 (plus 42 in the postseason). He is now officially the greatest ever (not that we needed a number to know that).
After Mariano hugs each of his teammates and coaches, Posada and Alex Rodriguez push him onto the mound for the first curtain call of his career. He smiles, shrugs his shoulders, and tips his cap to the crowd. As he says often, he is a team player and he’s uncomfortable in the spotlight. In the on-field interview with Kim Jones, Mo expresses gratitude to the fans, his teammates and his family. He also thanks Nick Swisher for hitting into that double play.
After the game, Mo answers questions from the press, flanked by his three sons. His family had traveled with him on the team’s previous road trip, and are, of course, at the stadium today. I watch the press conference when I get home.
Mo tries to describe the feeling of standing on the mound as the crowd cheered: “I can’t describe that feeling ’cause it was priceless.” He compares it to winning the World Series. And then: “For the first time in my career, I am on the mound alone. There is nobody behind me, nobody in front of me.” That statement is true on every level; many believe that there will never be a better closer than Mariano Rivera.
The legend himself might disagree. When asked if he expects someone to eventually break his record, Mo responds: “Records are meant to be broken…All I hope is whoever’s gonna be there or do that just respects the game the way I have respected the game. That’s what I wish.”
Mariano’s ability is beyond comparison, but it is his humility and his grace that truly set him apart. Listening to him speak, I get the feeling that for this man, World Series rings and being considered the best of all time are not the real prizes. For Mo, the real prize is the way that his youngest son looks at him as they sit on the podium together.