I was never a fan of good-byes…
Sadly, the 2013 Major League Baseball Season has come to an end. Well, at least for the New York Yankees. It was an eventful final week that saw a farewell to the great Mariano Rivera that was unmatched by any I have seen in recent years or even during my lifetime. Mo’s final game at Yankee Stadium turned out to be the final game of his professional career as he chose not to pitch during the season-ending series in Houston to preserve his Bronx goodbye as the final exit for a storied and soon to be Hall of Fame career.
I have been a Mariano Rivera fan since the days when he set up John Wetteland in the bullpen. His 7th and 8th inning appearances before the cardiac appearances by Wetteland were electric. The ball seemed to come screaming with blazing speed yet Mo seemed so effortless in letting the ball leave his hand. He made it look easy, and for the length of his career, he proved he was just a little better than everyone else. Sure, there were a few hiccups along the way. A couple of key blown saves in critical games, but these were few and far between. His success rate was far superior to any failures, and in those failures, you knew that Mo had left his all.
Looking back, I certainly have no regrets. It was an honor and privilege to be a Yankees fan and to witness the career of the latest Yankees legend. He’ll be someone that my grandchildren will be talking about, and I can say that I saw him pitch from the beginning to the end. Mo showed how special it was to play for one team, and he is forever embedded into Yankees lore. Ichiro Suzuki will be immortalized in Cooperstown one day as a Seattle Mariner, but Seattle will never be able to call Ichiro exclusively their own. They may have had his best years, but he still is playing his final years as a Yankee, not a Mariner. Fortunately, we never had to see Mo in another uniform or his former catcher, Jorge Posada.
I have been a Yankees fan since 1974 when free agent Jim “Catfish” Hunter, then my favorite pitcher, signed with the Yankees. I had grown up very intrigued by the Yankees with their great history and tradition. Those early 70’s were still a tough time for the Yankees organization, but they were about to turn the corner following the acquisition of the team by George Steinbrenner and his partners. To digress, I always loved the quote “There is nothing in life quite so limited as being a limited partner of George Steinbrenner”. This quote is attributed to former Yankees minority owner and later Houston Astros owner John McMullen. The first baseball biography I recall reading when I was little was a book about Lou Gehrig, and I’ve been a fan of his ever since. So, when Catfish made the decision to join the Yankees, it was very easy for me to follow.
During the course of my Yankees fandom, I’ve considered the following players to be my favorite Yankees. Hunter, Thurman Munson, Rich “Goose” Gossage, Don Mattingly, and Mariano Rivera. All those years and I can still count my favorite active Yankees on one hand, well until today with Rivera’s retirement. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect other Yankees over the years, these guys just happened to be my personal favorites at the time they played.
Being someone who appreciates history and tradition, I’ve always felt that Rivera was the perfect man to take Jackie Robinson’s number to retirement for the final time. Mo proved that he had the character to stand with greatness, and he served the legacy of Jackie Robinson very proudly and understood its significance. I am glad that the last guy out of baseball with #42 wasn’t some thug just trying to hang on to a lost career, with rumors of a steroid past. He wears #13. Okay, sorry, I didn’t mean that, or maybe I did, but you get the point. Jackie Robinson was a great man who dealt with more adversity than any of us will ever knew. He did it while turning the other cheek and proving he was the better man. He did this while carving out a Hall of Fame career on the field. If there was a man who deserved to have his number retired across baseball, it was Robinson, and if there was a man who deserved to be the final one to walk off the field with it, it was Mo. The Baseball Gods made sure this one played out like it was supposed to.
Mo, we thank you for simply being you. You did it your way, and you never strived to be anything other than what you were. You proved better than most in shaking off the game’s failures and you never gloated in its successes. You were proud of your teammates and respectful of your opponents. Baseball needs you, and I hope that this is just the beginning as you move into the next phase of your career. I am proud, very proud, when I say that I am a Mariano Rivera fan. He exceeded my wildest expectations and he leaves as the best ever at his position. He deserves to be a first ballot entry to the Hall of Fame. Anything less is unacceptable. He was ours and he proved he belongs to the Hall like no other that I’ve personally witnessed during my lifetime. Farewell, Mo. This is not the end, but simply the closing of one chapter and the opening of the next.
AP Photo (courtesy of LoHud Yankees Blog)
The gaze from under the brim of his cat…
While the focus of this post is Rivera, I would be remiss for not saying thanks to Andy Pettitte. Time and again, he stopped losing streaks and he was clutch when it mattered most (October). He never had the brilliant stuff of Felix Hernandez or Roy Halladay, but he was a winner. His passion showed and he was a champion. It was tough watching him leave via free agency for those three years in Houston, but I am glad he came back. Even during his time in Houston, you’d hear stories about how Andy still followed the Yankees. He is part of the Yankees family and history and always will be. It was so very fitting that his final game was a complete game win in his hometown of Houston. A bit ironic that the opponent was named Clemens (Paul Clemens, no relation to Roger). For the final game of the season, Roger Clemens did make an appearance to wish farewell to Mariano, and he gave Andy a hug. There has been a lot of mudslinging between the former close friends and regardless of what Roger may have or have not done, I was glad to see the small reconciliation. Baseball is greater than any one of us, and at the end of the day, Clemens, Pettitte, and Rivera were teammates and they represented the our team. I fully expect to see all three at future Old Timer’s Day games and I am hopeful that old scars can be healed and that the game itself can move forward.
Back to Andy, he will be a hard act to follow. When you look at the Yankees pitching staff, there is not one that can match Andy’s heart. CC Sabathia appears to be on the downside of his career, Hiroki Kuroda could very well head to Japan for his final season or two, Phil Hughes has worn the pinstripes for the last time, Ivan Nova is a roller-coaster and the jury is still out on David Huff. Next season will be one of transition and it is unfortunate that we’ll no longer have Andy as an anchor to the rotation. Andy’s ceiling was never as a #1 pitcher. He came to the major leagues with question marks, but he left as one of its greatest post-season performers. We were lucky to call Andy one of our own, and I am glad that he was never dealt away in one of those knee-jerk type of trades that we saw during the George Steinbrenner regime. Sorry, George, I miss you but you gotta admit that some of those trades left a little bit to be desired…
Getting back on track, Andy leaves the game being able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the greatest lefty in Yankees’ history, the Chairman of the Board, Whitey Ford. The Core Four (Rivera, Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Derek Jeter) did an excellent job in reaching the pinnacle of their positions in franchise history. Posada may not have matched Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey or Thurman Munson, but he can stand in the same room. DJ is obviously one of the greatest shortstops in the team’s history (along with Phil Rizzuto). For a team so stacked in history and tradition, four contemporary players reaching the upper echelon is amazing. It is the end of a terrific Yankees era, and as much as I hate to see Derek Jeter go out with an injury filled career, I would prefer for him to leave now rather than to come back next year for what most likely will be a year of reduced relevance on the roster.
What does the future hold?…
I really do not know what to expect next year. At the moment, it is uncertain if Robinson Cano or Curtis Granderson will be back. Joe Girardi is talking about needing time to decide if he wants to come back which is not a good sign in my opinion. Mark Texeira will be back next year, but he is deteriorating as he ages. I am not sure that CC can get back to being the dominant pitcher he once was, and the line-up is filled with age and injury-susceptible players. The farm system at the upper levels is weak, at best. While many of said that this has been a great year of managing by Joe Girardi, I’d argue that it has not been one of Brian Cashman’s best years. I do not know how much he has been constrained by ownership, but the 10 wins that the team could have used this season could have been acquired through smart and strategic moves. The farm system is very lacking at the upper levels and I know that injuries have played a part, but at some point, Cashman has to be held accountable. Like fine wine, it is harvest season except the Yankees do not have anything to harvest. They’ll have to overpay and to give up too much young talent to field a championship squad next season. Unfortunately, neither makes sense even for the Yankees, so it feels as though we are in the midst of an era of transition. Hopefully, greatness will be waiting on the other side…
A Legend among Legends…
Most baseball fans remember attending their first major league baseball game. For many of us, it happened during our childhoods so it was a special event to spend time with a parent, grand-parent or older sibling. In my case, I attended my first game with my step-father. My own father had died a few years earlier and he did not have the health in his final years to take me to any games.
I was excited when my step-father informed me that we could be traveling to St Louis by bus to see the Cardinals play. My step-father had been a life-long Cardinals fan so he was probably as thrilled about the trip as I was. My step-father had been very active with the local Elks club chapter, as a member and officer of the organization. The bus trip to St Louis, a five hour drive, had been sponsored by the Elks club. I am not sure why that’s relevant to this post, but it’s probably just a tribute to my step-father for the passion and support he gave the Elks over the years.
The date of the game was May 29, 1974, and it featured the Los Angeles Dodgers against the St Louis Cardinals. It was a nice spring Missouri day at the old Busch Stadium, with the Arch looming in the background. When I look back, I am in complete awe of the players who took the field that day. At that point of my childhood, I considered myself a bigger football than baseball fan. Like many of my friends, my favorite baseball team were the Oakland A’s. I would not become a Yankees fan until the end of the year when A’s starting pitcher and Hall of Famer Jim “Catfish” Hunter would leave Oakland as a free agent to sign with the Yankees.
Thinking about the game, several players stood out to me that day as a kid attending my first professional game. I was mesmerized by the Dodgers starting pitcher (and future Yankee) Tommy John and his pitching motion. Surprisingly, I remember John more that day than the starter for the Cardinals, the legendary Bob Gibson.
For the Cardinals, centerfielder Bake McBride made the biggest impression…well, at least until the latter innings. I thought the name “Bake” was rather cool, and he seemed to move effortlessly with great speed in the field. He did not do anything with his bat that day, but I enjoyed the grace he displayed in the field. Late in the game, the Cardinals brought in closer Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky even though they were trailing. The intensity that Hrabosky brought to the game when he entered to pitch still gives me chills. He brought the crowd alive, and although the Cardinals would lose the game, 5-2, Hrabosky made me a believer and he became my first favorite closer. I would have subsequent trips to St Louis and I always loved watching Hrabosky pitch while he was in his prime. I think I’ve always had a favorite closer through the years as a result. Rich “Goose” Gossage and Mariano Rivera are two other all-time favorites.
The memory of these players vastly overlooks the legends on the field that day (as I now recognize). The Dodgers were managed by the great Walter Alston, while the Cardinals were led by long-time manager Red Schoendienst. Some of the Dodger names that would have prominent roles in the ’77 and ’78 World Series agains the Yankees were there…Steve Garvey, Bill Russell, Ron Cey and Steve Yeager. The Cardinals had Joe Torre at first and Ted Simmons behind the plate. It is amazing how differently the game looks to me today as I recall it as opposed to my perception in May 1974. I was blessed with the opportunity to see so many legends that day.
As memorable as the game was for me, it was, believe it or not, a trip to the restroom that has endured the test of time as one of my all-time favorite baseball moments. It was the fourth inning and I made my way to the restroom. Over the speakers, I heard that I missed the opportunity to see my first home run as Ron Cey connected off Gibson. After using the restroom, I was walking down the corridor back toward my seat. I saw a line of people waiting to see a guy who was signing baseballs and books. There were actually two guys signing autographs. I went to the shorter line, and it was famed St Louis Post-Dispatch sports writer Bob Broeg. Nothing against Broeg, but I was more intrigued by the other gentleman as he was garnering the most attention. After getting Broeg’s autograph, I got in the other line and worked up my way up to shake hands with none other than the legendary Stan “The Man” Musial. I had been familiar with who Musial was through my step-father as he always spoke very fondly of the Cardinals great. I was in awe but admittedly I did not appreciate the moment at the time in the way I do today. Mr. Musial was very kind to me and it is an encounter that I will never forget. I can still remember going back to my seat and telling my step-father, “I just met Stan ‘The Man’ Musial!”.
I was very saddened to hear the news of Musial’s passing this weekend. I have always been grateful for the few minutes I had with him and he’ll always hold a special place for me as one of my all-time favorite players. He will be missed and as many have written, he was “The Man”…