Not even five minutes in, the tears started. Mariano Rivera sat in the middle of a room full of strangers, ready to tell his story, and ended up listening to everyone else's. The family that lost a son in unimaginable fashion. The boy beaten down by cancer and chemo who peeled himself off the bench to pitch one more inning. Rivera nodded and smiled and consoled and comforted and, more than anything, he thanked them for thinking they were the ones getting something out of this day when he gleaned even more.
Sometimes we delude ourselves into thinking the social media revolution has returned the public's access to an increasingly insular sporting world. This, with rare exception, is not true. Digital communication is so fleeting, so intangible, a joke of a stand-in for the richness of an experience like the one Rivera is providing across the sport in his final season. When he and New York Yankees PR director Jason Zillo brainstormed the idea to spend time with local fans and workers in every road city – not just a cattle call for autographs and pictures but real, honest-to-God dialogue about the others' lives as much as Rivera's – neither understood the power of what they were creating.
Now that they've seen it, and now that others have witnessed it, the obvious takeaway isn't merely that Rivera is a special person, which has been apparent for going on two decades. It's that this level of interaction, of reconnecting baseball with those who through action or circumstance deserve its dose of good, should not end when Rivera retires following this season.
Baseball needs to take this and run with it. Whether it's one player a year or multiple, and whether it follows the formula Rivera uses or brings an individually tailored style, the game has stumbled on an idea so simple it shouldn't be unique: remind people how much they love baseball by telling them stories and listening to theirs, too.
"It's something every player should experience," Rivera said. "Because it's wonderful. The things you get from it – it will change your life. There's so much out there we don't know.
"Hopefully, many others do it."
The idea is feasible enough that executives at both Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association plan on looking into the logistics and whether players would be as accommodating with their schedules and stories as Rivera. MLB senior vice president Patrick Courtney said he'll soon talk with public relations directors around the league to gauge interest. And Tony Clark, the longtime major leaguer and director of player services for the union, agreed that some incarnation of it – call it the Mariano Rivera Speaker Series – that gives a glimpse into a Hall of Famer or even a longtime player's career would provide instantaneous memories and connections.
Granted, few if any come with the gravitas of Rivera, who has a fistful of World Series rings, more saves than any pitcher ever and a history of charity and nobility nearly unmatched throughout the game. In these chats, he takes what could be a staid presentation – watch a video, do a short Q&A, pose for some antiseptic pictures and move on – and personalizes it far beyond what anyone expects.
During his talk last week in Kansas City, Rivera listened to the story of the Bressette family, which lost 10-year-old Luke – a Yankees hater, his older brother noted – after a sign in an airport fell on him. Rivera tried his best not to cry. Plenty more in the room couldn't help it.
He heard teenager Jonas Borchert, going through a relapse of the rare bone cancer Ewing's sarcoma, talk about how the disease couldn't stop him from playing the game he loves, and Rivera, always so composed, didn't know what to say. So he thanked Borchert.
"Mo handles that all very well," Clark said. "I'm not too sure how many guys could handle that as well as he does."
This is true. Rivera is perfect in this role as baseball ambassador. And yet as the program were to evolve, it could be so much more. It could be Lance Berkman, the ultimate raconteur, making groups of people laugh. And Torii Hunter, a classic success story, reminding people how the infectiousness with which he plays baseball didn't go away a generation ago when the money got big.
"One of the main differences between baseball today and what I've read about years ago is the connection," said Joe Giovagnoli, who joined the discussion with Rivera in Kansas City after his father, creator of the Iron Mike pitching machine, recently died. "Something like this can only help bring it back together. I really didn't know what to expect. I certainly didn't think it was going to get as personal."
Plenty of players won't. They'll want to save their stories for friends and family, or for a book, or for no one but themselves to cherish. Any sort of reticence there is understandable, as is the regimented nature of so many players' pre-game routines getting in the way of a regularly scheduled event such as this. As a closer, Rivera's schedule is far more accommodating.
Others choose to spend time away from the stadium playing emissary. From work with local children and those afflicted with cancer to food drives and charity events, baseball players far and wide do give back. What Rivera is doing is simply more personal – like a musician doing an episode of "Storytellers."
"There are players who I think would embrace an opportunity to get in front of folks and have the open dialogue," Clark said. "I'm hopeful that guys would take advantage of allowing the game to say thank you to them. And if that lends itself to more availability, that's great. When you wear a big league uniform, you're in a pretty small fraternity. It's OK to open that fraternity."
Throughout the rest of the season, Rivera will crack the door and invite in a fortunate group. Most will ask the same questions: Who did you hate facing ("Edgar Martinez") and what made the Yankees so great ("chemistry") and so on. The opportunity to sit not just in the same room as Rivera but the same level – he was in a plastic chair on the floor, not on top of the dais – took away the potential pretense and lent an air of intimacy uncommon to such events.
"It's something to give back," Rivera said. "That's all. We're just trying to give back. It's wonderful, though."
Not just for him and not just the fans there but all of baseball. The next speaker won't be Mariano Rivera. No one will. And that's OK. The game's got a million stories, and the more that get told – and heard – the better.
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