Humble Rivera honored by unanimous election

By Roberto Salvador Klapisch

You didn’t have to peel away layers of psychological flesh to know Mariano Rivera was overwhelmed to be the first player unanimously elected into the Hall of Fame Tuesday night. He said so – over and over again, giving thanks to his family, his teammates and mostly God, for a career that’d officially made history.

Now Rivera is hitching a ride to Cooperstown, N.Y., still propelled by the humility that made him this millennium’s most respected baseball ambassador. He accomplished what the supernovas – Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig – could not, running the table, appearing on every single ballot.

To think, Rivera never once considered this to be possible in his days in the Bronx.

“I wasn’t expecting to be a Hall of Famer when I was playing,” he said during a conference call with reporters. “I was happy just to be in the big leagues.”

Dominating hitters with the same pitch over two decades? Rivera shook his head. He still calls it a miracle

“I cannot understand how such a thing was possible.”

Living a life without bling, someone asked? That was easy, Rivera said.

Being respectful of opponents? Even easier.

Saying goodbye to the Yankees in 2013? Rivera exhaled, giving himself a moment to step into that time tunnel. That date was Sept. 26 when Rivera threw his last pitch in the big Stadium. The Yankees were going nowhere that year, finishing with 85 wins as an invisible third-place team in the American League East.

Still, Rivera remembers every last detail. His eyes still moisten when he sees replays on TV of the impromptu ceremony on the mound. October’s toughest warrior wept on Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte’s shoulders as they came to take the ball out of Rivera’s hand.

“It was so powerful,” River said, that he couldn’t bring himself to pitch in the Yankees’ final three games in Houston. And true to his kindness woven into his DNA, Rivera apologized to Astros fans for sitting out. Not that anyone would’ve blamed him.

“I wanted to have that (farewell) in my mind for the rest of my life.”

Yes, Rivera bawled like a baby on the mound that day. It seemed impossible in one sense: he’d been in control for so many years. The man who’d been a machine, whose cut-fastballs had broken hearts and bats without mercy, was suddenly lost in a torrent of his own tears.

Then it hit you. Rivera’s reaction made all the sense in the world. The greatest closer in the game’s history proved just how tough he was – man enough to hug Pettitte and cry so hard neither one would let go. Joe Girardi, not a skipper given to overstatement, said later that day, “I’ve never seen a ceremony like this.” There were no speeches, no video tributes, no fancy gifts, just a spontaneous act of humanity from a baseball giant.

This is what Rivera was talking about Tuesday night: he’d just retired the Rays’ Yunel Escobar in the ninth inning. Two out, no one on, but instead of letting Rivera finish the outing, it was cut short so he could walk off to an ovation that was 19 years in the making.

But it wasn’t Girardi who made that last trip out of the dugout – it was Jeter and Pettitte, the only remaining links to better times in the Bronx.

Rivera tried to hide his face as he hugged Pettitte at first, before finally surrendering to the tears. Modern day athletes are vilified for so many reasons, so many transgressions – greed, selfishness, criminality. But there was something touchingly human about the way Rivera’s shoulders shook in Pettitte’s and Jeter’s embrace.

Mariano could’ve been anyone who realized the life he’d known was ending. A cop, a teacher, a nurse, you or me. That connection is what always separated Rivera from other superstars in New York; not even Jeter, the latter-day Joe DiMaggio, had that kind of bond with the public.

Even the Rays shared the moment. They stood in front of their dugout and clapped for Rivera. They applauded the right-hander when he jogged in from the bullpen in the eighth inning, and they were at it again when Rivera put the finishing touch on his Bronx career, too.

Joe Torre was right when he told Sports Illustrated, “”Probably not since (Sandy) Koufax have we seen anyone leave the game with so much respect,” The farewell only cemented what we’d known forever, that Rivera, a great pitcher, was an even better man, honest enough to show how much he loved baseball and how much it hurt to finally let it go.

“He was really crying, you know?” Pettitte said. “He was weeping, and I could feel him crying on me and I think I was just telling him, ‘Man, you’ve been so awesome to play with.’ Just sharing stuff with him that I’ve already told him, and he knows, just telling him that I appreciate him and love him, man.”

Rivera waved to the crowd, tipping his cap to the fans he’d always considered his extended family. That only made it tougher for him to regain his composure. Rivera hugged everyone in the Yankees dugout, including Girardi, the state-trooper look-alike who’d been crying, too.

That’s what ran through Rivera’s mind on the Stadium mound for the last time, that the symphony, beautiful as it was, had ended. That’s why his shoulders heaved as hugged Pettitte and Jeter, knowing the next life was right around the corner. Rivera exited with no regrets five-plus years ago, only as the man who was tough enough to cry on the way out.

Think he won’t be fighting back tears at Cooperstown? Is there any doubt?

Featured Image: Elsa / Getty Images Sport

Inset Image: Maddie Meyer / Getty Image Sport