As pitcher Mariano Rivera tours baseball in the final season of his brilliant 19-year career, the Yankees closer – the best in history – asks teams in road cities to let him meet before games with cooks, janitors, groundskeepers, ushers and fans.
These are baseball’s background people and Rivera sits down to converse with them, thank them and sometimes pray with them before exchanging handshakes and hugs as he says goodbye. Already known for his religious activities, Rivera will go full-time into church work among poor people on his way to the Hall of Fame.
Watch: American League beat the National League 3-0
So the extraordinary tribute to Rivera at Tuesday’s All-Star Game at Citi Field is something to savour. Few days of the year are without games in the four major professional sports, but the all-star break is one of them.
That makes it a fine time to relax and reflect on what has just been seen, heard and felt. Was it really that good? Yes, it was.
First, in official business, the American League beat the National League, 3-0, its first victory after three defeats. Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays drove home the winning run with a sacrifice fly. The victory gives the American League home-field advantage in the World Series.
But all that was secondary to both the individual Rivera moment in the game and the overall impressive job David Wright of the Mets did for several days as ambassador for both his sport and his city. The Mets were the host team; Wright got it right.
Both of these unusually gracious athletes play in a town with some crude and rude people and in a sport that has a few of them as well. Their presence – Rivera in his soft way, Wright in his expressive way – were like cool breezes on hot, muggy days.
Rivera entered the game in the bottom of the eighth inning. Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland set it up so none of his teammates left the dugout until Rivera jogged in from the bullpen, doffed his cap and bowed to the crowd during an ovation that partly drowned out the Enter Sandman music that always plays when he comes in.
Both dugouts cheered. Both bullpens cheered. Even Mets fans cheered. Some sports reporters wanted to cheer but, of course, did not, and looked on as Rivera retired all three batters he faced.
There is a regal presence to this bald, 43-year-old Panamanian that everyone senses. In a recent interview with New York Magazine, Rivera – a Pentecostal – said the spirit speaks to him in dreams, in songs, in the Bible. He recalled himself as a young man running with a bad crowd and “doing the wrong things. It was just bad. … I would have been dead.”
But he changed. A few years ago, a reporter bumped into Rivera leaving the clubhouse dressed in an elegant suit after a Sunday game. “Where you going, Mo?” Rivera was asked. “To church, of course!” Rivera replied with a smile.
The same reporter encountered Rivera after a World Series championship with champagne flowing and spraying across the room. Rivera had none. “No champagne, Mo?” the reporter asked. “No,” Rivera said, quietly but seriously. “Alcohol is not good.”
He practises what he preaches.
Wright, 13 years younger than Rivera, has been the best player on the Mets pretty much since his debut in 2004. A few years ago, he suffered a serious injury when hit in the head with a fast ball.
It could have ruined his career and, for a year or so, he seemed a little timid at the plate. But Wright is hitting .304 this year with 13 home runs and 44 runs batted in. In an era of cheaters who use performance-enhancing drugs, Wright’s name never comes up in investigations.
Like Don Mattingly of the Yankees, Wright may be doomed to play an entire career for mediocre New York teams. If it bothers him, he never lets it show. He has no nickname. If he did, it would be “Mister” or “Dudley-Do.”
Under normal circumstances, Wright is polite to fans, teammates, rivals, clubhouse boys, umpires and journalists. In recent days, he seemed super-charged along these lines to present his sport in the best possible light.
Wright’s face naturally falls into a smile; it’s his default position. Over the all-star festivities, he tried to be everywhere, talk to everyone, wave to every fan who called out to him during that tingly red-carpet motor parade down 42nd Street Tuesday afternoon.
Wright was becoming the smiling face of the event with a natural grace that kept other players from being jealous. “I don’t want to turn this into a one-man circus,” Wright told USA Today a few days ago, “and I feared it was becoming that.”
By the time the game ended, he didn’t have to worry. Sure, Wright got cheered lustily at his introduction and cheered again for a line drive hit, one of only three hits by the NL.
But Rivera took care of the star moment of the 2013 All-Star Game, and if you listen closely today you might still hear the echo of sincere cheers for two of the best.