It is impossible, even for most Yankees fans, to justify much of anything about the New York Yankees. Not in a baseball sense, necessarily: The Yankees are pretty clearly the greatest organization in the sport's history, and a decent number of baseball's best-ever players have worn the team's pinstripes. They have come in all shapes and sizes, from Mickey Mantle's Baseball Adonis to Phil Rizzuto’s Jittering Positive Homonculus to Babe Ruth's Giant Whiskey-Filled Yam with Two Toothpicks Sticking Out of It. Because these are baseball dudes we're talking about, a decent number of them were dirtbags, goofy man-children, prickly vain monsters, or all of the above. But because they are Yankees, all those complicated humans have been subsumed into the team's hilariously grandiose mythos—repurposed as black and white images designed to evoke a distant sentimental pull in some of the surliest and most entitled sports fans the world has ever seen.
This is an organization that breaks out French Horn-y fake Handel as soundtracks for its television commercials, a baseball team that seriously has its own his and hers perfume. The new stadium is less a place to watch a baseball game than an art installation dedicated to the nauseating, glass-jawed triumphalism of the last decade's metastatic materialism, which Curtis Granderson periodically hits baseballs out of. The transformation of late owner George Steinbrenner—a man who, at the height of his towering and idiotic malevolence, made Donald Trump look like Jesus Christ—from a crass, moneyed bully into some sort of bellowing turtlenecked human Successory about Never Accepting Less Than the Best is a supremely devastating bit of unintentional satire on American culture. These are all awful things, and all supremely Yankees. But even bearing all that in mind, there is no one who cares about baseball who has anything bad to say about Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. Right up until the moment that he ripped up his knee shagging flies during batting practice on Thursday, Rivera was one of the most objectively wonderful things going in baseball, and one of the few players imaginable whose manifest awesomeness was great enough to escape the gravitational field of the luxury-box-as-black-hole that is the Yankees.
Rivera is 42 years old, and has been with the Yankees for all 18 of his Major League seasons. He has been pitching long enough to own more or less every meaningful record related to relief pitching—his 608 career saves mark is hard to imagine being broken by anyone anytime soon, given that the closest active closer has some 279 fewer saves—and his postseason dominance is so unnatural that it’s almost funny: Over 16 postseasons, he’s pitched 141 innings, and allowed just 11 earned runs. That Rivera has done all this mostly by throwing just one pitch—a cut fastball that has darted in the same unpredictable way for nearly two decades—is astonishing, but only a part of what makes Mariano one of the very few consensus points for virtually all baseball fans. The same goes for the faint saintliness that surrounds Rivera, the understated and supremely devout son of a Panamanian fisherman. At the end of this season, it was easy enough to imagine Rivera spending the rest of his life in Panama, building orphanages. This sort of mythmaking is more common in baseball than in other sports, and at its worst it can be a drag and a distraction—a way to turn driven, complicated people into statuettes. Rivera is probably not as close to perfect as a human being as he has been as a pitcher. That's not a knock on him. He's human. And anyway, none of this—or none of this alone—is what makes Mariano one of the very few things that all baseball fans can agree upon.
That thing is tough to define, although it will be the thing whose absence we'll notice if Rivera, who had planned to retire after this season, decides not to attempt a comeback from this injury. But, at the risk of skirting Yankees-ian grandiosity, there was a singularity to what Mariano Rivera did and how he did it that was unique both to baseball as a sport and Rivera as one of its foremost artists. There in the honking, egregious bummerscape of two Yankee Stadiums, year after year and over one predictable ninth inning after another, Rivera simply repeated himself and repeated himself, did his humble work over and over in monkish stillness and silence. There was a grace to it, and to him, that was authentic in a way that simultaneously deflated all the familiar Yankees pomposity and recast the game as something strangely prayerful. There was something essential to it, and not in the Essence of Yankees Bro-Perfume way. The opposite of that, actually.
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