ANAHEIM, Calif. – Before he left it behind, returned to his church and family for good, floated between his places in Westchester County and Panama at his whim, maybe taught a few young and lost souls how to command an inning, Mariano Rivera decided he'd look a few more folks in the eye.
In the months and days and hours before he said goodbye, he wanted to say hello.
What a baseball career lacks in permanence, it more than covers in the commitment it requires, which leaves little time to stop and smell, say, the mailroom. The kitchen. The bleachers.
By now you've heard Rivera, 43, intends to retire at the end of the season, his 19th in the major leagues, his 24th as a professional ballplayer. And that he wished to meet the people he'd not met before, those who'd worked the long hours, kept the places running, cleaned them up, opened the doors and shut them again. He'd shake their hands and return their smiles and tell his stories and thank them for their dedication to performing one job very well for a long time.
Soon, he'll be helping his wife, Clara, renovate that little church in New Rochelle. He'll be a fulltime dad to his three boys. He'll be killing a few years before that decidedly spiritual journey to Cooperstown.
But, there's still today, a lot of todays. And while he was still wearing the uniform, still turning a cutter into victories, he would deliver a pizza to the mailroom in Oakland. He would look out over a small gathering in Cleveland and demand, "Where's the drummer?" He would soothe a broken family in Kansas City, and confide in veterans in Tampa, "I don't want to go without saying thank you." He would sit with employees at Citi Field, at Coors Field, wherever the schedule took him, Saturday afternoon at the ballpark where he made his big-league debut 18 years and a month before, home of the team against which he recorded his first big-league save a year after that.
For Rivera, there's always been something about Angel Stadium and the California-Anaheim-Los Angeles Angels. Of any ballpark in which he pitched more than five times, his highest ERA is at Angel Stadium. Of any team he ever pitched against, his highest ERA is against the Angels.
He sat among them. Jim Abbott was to his left. General manager Jerry Dipoto was across the way. Trainer Rick Smith to his right. The rest were employees, fans, sponsors, the kind of people Rivera sought to introduce himself all season.
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"Where's Alice?" Rivera asked.
A woman in a dark blue smock who'd worked 45 years in housekeeping smiled and waved her hand. Years ago she'd brought her two sons on board.
"Thank you, Alice," he said. "Thank you for being here."
He showed them the grip on his signature pitch, and told them the story of how it came to be his, and Abbott smiled. He, too, threw a cutter. That was years ago.
"I brought my daughter here," Abbott said, patting Maddy on her leg, "to meet you. Because you are the modern-day Lou Gehrig."
They told him their stories, and he told them his, going all the way back to his village in Panama. He held up a baseball, given to him earlier by a young boy, and said, "I would have loved to have had one of these when I was his age."
They laughed and he smiled, and the conversation went on like that for an hour, everyone sharing how they'd spent their last couple decades while Rivera, out there somewhere, was saving a record number of ballgames, becoming the very best at what he does. They may not ever have been Yankees fans, or even Rivera fans, but they were fans of grace and dignity, and in that there was hardly any missing Rivera.
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It is wonderful, the selfless gestures from Rivera as he travels one last time on the Yankee dime, the reactions they bring, the kindness for kindness' sake. But as time has passed, through a half-season of turning strangers into something like friends, the story has changed. Rivera went out hoping to encourage people, to assure them they are in his heart. Instead, he has been encouraged. He has been assured.
"I was thinking to say thank you for what they all do," Rivera said Friday afternoon, before he met with the group in Anaheim. "What I've received is greater than that."
Turned out, before they left it all behind, before they returned to their families, their lives, they would enrich Mariano Rivera's. They would guide him from pinstripes to civilian life. They would tell him they're OK, and that there is fulfillment to be had beyond the game. That it's pretty good out here, too, in the mailrooms and the kitchens and the bleachers.
"It's a blessing," Rivera said.
Yeah, it's been pretty good, except for one thing.
"I should've done it before," he said. "Because there's not enough time to say to everyone that I appreciate what you do."
So, to everyone, he'd say thank you. And hello.
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