Mariano

I woke up on Wednesday morning to my home phone ringing. I would later find out I had 8 missed calls on my cell phone, which had been vibrating in my drawer. My brother’s fiancee was calling. My dad was in the hospital – he had a stroke that morning. By 9:15 I was in Forest Hill Hospital, holding my dad’s trademark Stetson hat as the nurse gave him an injection of some blood thinner.

My dad is okay. It was a small stroke, literally the least serious stroke you could have and still have a technical stroke. He should be going home tomorrow, slightly more than 48 hours after he was admitted. With some slight life style changes, he should be healthy for many more years.

This comes after a year of frustration after my graduation, in which my attempts to start a job, a career, and a life have been continually rebuffed and ignored. Love life has been remarkably stagnant. And various family drama has brought stress and emotional duress.

As anyone who knows me knows, in times of difficulty, I turn to sports. And most of the time, I get let down. The Jets always manage to disappoint in the most spectacular way, the Nets wish they had expectations to disappoint, and Syracuse sports vacillated from the former (SU basketball) to the latter (SU football).

But I always had the Yankees. And since I’m right between 22 and 23 years old, I’ve always had Mariano Rivera. Jogging in calmly, glove in one hand, head down, Mo would take the mound as Enter Sandman blared over the loudspeakers. And with a few cutters, a broken bat or two, and on his worst nights, a bloop single, Mariano would close the game out. There would be no histrionics, no dancing – he would nod, shake his catcher’s hand and congratulate his teammates. Later on, in interviews, he would always pass praise on to those teammates, or his coaches, or the fans, or God.

(A sidenote: I hate when athletes rave about God or Jesus. But when Mo did it, it never bothered me. Maybe its because I’m pretty sure I’ve always thought he was a deity, so it was just a 2nd-degree form of confidence.)

Today, in a ballpark in Kansas City, Mariano Rivera collapsed while shagging fly balls near the outfield wall. A forgettable game later, news broke that he has torn his ACL, a ligament in his right knee. He is out for the rest of the season, and since he’s 42, his career is in doubt.

Despite a year full of disappointment and bitterness, and a week of hospital beds and the words “clot,” “numbness,” and “stroke,” I hadn’t cried. But I did tonight, when Mariano stood at his locker, and said that, rather than go to NYC and get final confirmation on the injury and relax at home, he would stay with the team. In his words “To make sure the guys are okay.” During a night when his body failed him for the first time in two decades, when he is questioning his own athletic mortality, he is putting his teammates before himself.

Mariano was always the best. He was leagues ahead of regular pitchers, and always had numbers amongst the best closers. Except he did it for almost twenty years in a row when most flamed out after three. And he always raised his game when it mattered. When he entered the game, Yankees fans breathed a sigh of relief, and even played the Mo Game. Guess how many pitches it will take Mariano to close this one out. Sports fans, a notoriously superstitious lot, took his success for granted.

Even more, Mariano is the epitome of class and grace. A leader amongst the clubhouse, especially amongst the Latino and especially the Panamanian kids, Mariano had no hesitation teaching anyone who asked how to throw his cutter. He even tried to teach it to pitchers from rival teams! He tried to give the secret of his success away.

For me personally, I grew up on the Yankees teams of the late 90s and 2000s. We had four public faces. Derek Jeter was the star, Andy Pettitte was the drawling southern steadying force, while Jorge Posada was the emotion and heart and passion. Mariano was something else. He was a level above. We idolized Derek, we admired Pettitte and we roared for Jorge, but we worshiped Mariano.

We hear people talk wistfully of watching Ali fight. Of watching Bird pass. Of watching Jim Brown run. Of watching Orr skate. I’m gonna talk wistfully of watching Mariano pitch.

In a year of disappointment and a week of heartache and fear, the dam broke when a 42 year old relief pitcher from a tiny village in Panama, whom I had never met, snapped an ACL in his leg. I cried. For the first time since 2001, I cried because of sports.

But it wasn’t really because of sports. It was everything. When my life was too difficult, I turned to the Yankees. And when the games were too difficult, the Yankees turned to Mo. And he always got the save.

I could use a save right now.

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