The great Mariano

Posted: July 3, 2013 by shawnfury in Uncategorized

When I was a little kid, my best friend in the neighborhood did a tremendous Juan Agosto impression, the former middling Major League Baseball reliever who spent 1986 with the Twins. Brandon had everything down; he was like Rich Little doing Reagan. The walk, the pitching motion, and, most importantly, the hat sitting high atop the head. Brandon’s brother Benji did an even better Ron Davis, fully committing to the role. Benji wore glasses, just like the beleaguered Twins closer, and would go through an entire R.D. appearance: Arrival from the bullpen, breathing, the delivery, and then his head whipping around to watch a homer fly out of the park, followed by a personal touch, Benji slamming his hat to the ground. To be helpful, and to make our faux R.D. feel at home, we’d heckle him. It was a delight to any 10-year-old.

I’m sure somewhere out there in New York is a little kid who does a Mariano Rivera impression. And I’m sure it’s the most boring impression anyone’s ever seen. Why? Because Mariano Rivera barely breathes, never throws a tantrum, makes the same motion with every stride and every pitch, never sweats, never changes facial expressions and almost never blows a save. Where’s the fun in that? He’s as much Ice Man as the Sandman, and even as a fan of a Midwestern team that’s been shut down time and again by him, I wish he’d pitch forever.

It was always a bit jolting watching the Twins and Yankees in the playoffs and seeing the contrast between Rivera and Joe Nathan, who for many years was as good as anyone. Whereas Rivera always looked in complete control, Nathan took deep breaths like he was preparing to dip into a lake. When the camera zoomed in, he looked like Moses Malone at the free throw line, the sweat pouring off. Nathan didn’t always blow games against the Yankees, though it happened enough, but just watching him sapped confidence.

I never think Rivera’s blowing a save, which makes it so confusing when it actually happens. It’ll start with a bloop single, maybe a rare walk. Perhaps an opposite field liner goes down the third-base line. Suddenly the game is tied or the Yankees have actually lost. As shocking as the Yankees’ collapse in the 2004 ALCS was, not even blowing a 3-0 lead seemed as surprising as the way the Sox won that first game, when Dave Roberts stole second and Boston eventually stole Game 4. It seemed impossible, even though the Diamondbacks had shown Rivera to be a mere mortal three years earlier, ending his invincibility and the Yankees’ championship reign.

Of course one reason Rivera is beloved in places other than the Bronx is because of the way he carries himself after the rare misstep, particularly after that 2004 disappointment. When the Red Sox received their rings at the start of the 2005 season, Fenway fans gave Rivera a standing ovation when he was introduced before the game, appreciation for the two blown saves from the 2004 playoffs. A grinning Rivera tipped his cap. That season, and every season after, an annual rite of passage for Yankees observers was to worry that Rivera wasn’t going to be his normal dominant self. Mike Lupica specialized in the spring column, “Mariano Rivera’s been the most important Yankee during this run and if these struggles are a sign that he’s not what he once was, then it’s the end of the Yankees.” The sentiment was probably true, but Yankee fans never had to actually worry about it. Nine years later he’s the same.

As much as I wish Rivera would stay with the Yankees — who doesn’t want to see some second-year Twins player strike out or break two bats against him? — the final image we have of him will, most likely, be of him on the mound, not being carried off the field in pain. When Rivera tore his ACL last season it seemed an especially cruel way for a legend’s career to end, even though few players in any sport get the ending fans want.

My favorite Rivera game didn’t even end in a save. It was his three-inning performance in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, when he shut out the Red Sox before Aaron Boone finally won the game with a home run. As the Yankees celebrated, Rivera again found his way to the mound and collapsed to his knees.

The first seven or eight games I saw at Yankee Stadium ended with Rivera getting a save. Watching him run in from the dugout is one of the coolest moments in sports — the crowd rises before he even appears, the music starts and he slowly jogs in as his teammates and manager wait for him in the infield. I actually do YouTube searches of Rivera’s entrances, filmed by fans. Still, there’s nothing like seeing him in person, an experience that’s impossible to duplicate, from a player who’s impossible to impersonate.

  1. Jim says:

    I had the luck of attending 1 game at The old stadium and as luck would have it Matsui hit a 2 run homer in the bottom of the 8th to give the Yanks the lead. my phone was dead already so i never got pics or video but the hair on my arms still stands up when I think about it.

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