Yankee Grace

Act like you’ve been there before.

In an era marked by excessive celebration and one in which players want the cameras to “look at me,” the idea of grace has gone out of fashion. Style has trumped substance. Media gravitate towards the controversial, the electric and the risqué. Drama sells. The public tune into see the roller coaster ride. They swarm to the athlete that takes them through all the ups and downs. Mere greatness (alone) often goes underappreciated. Many label those who don’t give great quotes or colorful on field behavior as boring. Nothing could be further from the truth. In this era, society should celebrate that kind of professional decorum. This opening day, let’s appreciate the dignity and grace of closer Mariano Rivera.

The Yankee closer begins his fourteenth season as the team’s 9th inning pitcher. No position has more ups and downs than the closer. It’s simple really; teams pay these guys to hold the lead and secure the victory. These men have all the pressure each time they step onto the field. Many thrive for a year or two and flame out. Some, spectacularly so. Few master the position. When one does, it is all the more remarkable.

Many closers have elaborate celebrations when they secure a victory. They jump up and down, pound their chest, and show every emotion imaginable. The best ones have a steely resolve and an indomitable will. The will to win came with a refusal to come up short. Determination set them apart. That and a great out pitch.

Rivera has one pitch. He’s dominated opposing hitters for over a decade with his trademark cutter. The cutter is a fastball with late breaking movement. Rivera’s dips low and away from the right handed hitter and bust the hands and breaks the bat of a left handed batter. Centering the sweet spot of the bat on this cutter is darn near impossible. Many go down swinging or make weak contact. Several break the bat as they hit a pop up or a slowly hit ground ball. All marvel at the consistency. All remain baffled at their inability to figure out and take down the Yankee closer. Hitters plan for it. They’ve seen the pitch come out of no. 42’s hand a million times.  Baseball, a game of many uncertainties and frustration offers few truisms. One certainty is that while seasons change and players come and go, Mariano Rivera will still find a way to get opposing batters out.

Opposing managers dread the sound. Each closer has a song that marks their entrance into the game. Rivera jogs out of the bullpen to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” It is the anthem of doom. Baseball men know that once Rivera comes in, you can pretty much write down the rest of the story. The predictable happens; the closer nails down the save and the Yankees grab another victory.

New Yorkers love winners. None have provided it more often than Rivera. New Yorkers also love attitude. Rivera employs the philosophy articulated by another New Yorker, Teddy Roosevelt. That president famously said: “speak softly, carry a big stick, and you will go far.” This sums up the Rivera era. No theatrics, no sound bites, no drama. His is a silent confidence and an assurance that success will come. He has thrived in the past and plans on succeeding again. He comes in, gets the opposition out, secures victory, makes one fist pump, gives a handshake to the catcher, and exits the field.—time after time, season after season, now into a third different decade.

Yankees rule baseball. Twenty seven championships make them king of the hill. New Yorkers expect a World Series trophy each autumn and bring in lots of characters to help in this quest. Many outsized personalities line the Yankee archives. Men like Ruth, Mantle, Jackson all were good for a quote and led the team to several championships. But, another heritage exists in the Yankeeography. This tradition is of the silent warrior. The man who showed up, performed on the highest level, and went about his business. No drama, just results. Immigrants dot this landscape. Greats like Gehrig (German) and DiMaggio (Italian) played brilliantly and garnered respect. Rivera (Panaman) fits into this category. These men assimilated into the team unit, and became beloved for their consistency and skill. They excelled; they flat out played; they won.

All too often, sports fans bemoan the fact that the games they relish don’t teach them life lessons. We want our athletic heroes to play the right away, treat the game with respect, and live orderly lives. When men do, we complain that it’s not flashy enough. It’s boring. In the steroid scandal, in an age when athletes all too often disappoint, one should look towards those that play the game the right way. Those that act like they’ve been there before and the ones who celebrate with a simple fist pump instead of a drawn out, elaborate celebration. Decorum, dignity, grace. These attributes that Rivera exhibits on a daily basis should serve as the model for young people. Look kids, here’s a guy who performs the right way. No one can dispute his greatness nor can they point at “another” lunatic on the sports scene. He handles his job with class.

That’s the word. He has class. And we will remember that attribute long after the Yankee closer rides off into the sunset.


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