Exit Sandman

Sad news for baseball fans.

Over the last 15 seasons, Mariano Rivera has been the most consistently dominant pitching force in baseball.

Eventually, that run had to end, but after a brilliant 17-plus seasons with the New York Yankees, the best closer in the game deserved to go out on his own terms. Instead, the final image of Rivera on the field could be the 42-year-old veteran writhing in pain on the warning track before Thursday’s game in Kansas City.

No, it wasn’t supposed to end like this, but if there’s one constant in this changing world, it’s that all good things must come to an end. But seeing a unanimous first ballot Hall of Fame career abruptly end like this still hurts.

I must confess that I haven’t watched very much baseball this season. Work commitments and other interests have turned me into a fair weather lifelong Yankee fan. I did catch the 9th inning of a game last week that Mariano saved. At the time, I wondered how many more chances I’d have to see number 42 close a game. At age 42, I knew there would not be many. I never imagined those few moments of a game last week would be my last chance.

I have a good friend Rick from Central Pennsylvania who like me is a huge Yankee fan. We usually go to a Yankees-Orioles game or two each year at Camden Yards. We’ve seen Mariano record a number of saves for us over the years. Rick’s job takes him all over the world, but somehow he’d never been to Yankee Stadium heading into its last season before the team moved into what Wright Thompson of ESPN calls “The House Next to the House that Ruth Built.” But then, I’ve been to hundreds of Yankee games, but had never heard Mariano’s Enter Sandman theme played live at the Stadium.

I finally got a chance to reciprocate my friend Rick’s generosity over the years by snagging tickets for us to see the Yankees host the Seattle Mariners during the last season in the old Yankee Stadium. It was a chilly Bronx night with intermittent drizzles, awful baseball weather. Not enough rain to postpone or even delay the game, but miserable enough for two middle-aged guys not used to shivering for three and a half hours, while washing down cold $8 hot dogs with flat watered-down $10 domestic beers.

Chen Ming Wang started the game that night and pitched very well. Remember him? Wang had an unhittable 94 MPH sinking fastball before injuries cut short a promising career. That’s baseball. Injuries are part of the game, and pitchers  especially break down as often as Kentucky thoroughbreds. The ones who stay healthy eventually lose their velocity, their control or their command of one of their repertoire of pitches.

Mariano was the exception to the rule in every sense. For eighteen seasons, he was without question the best closer in baseball. He didn’t have a repertoire of different pitches to fool batters. No, he had one pitch, a cut fastball that broke sharply in on left handed batters, broke countless bats, nicked the outside corner on right handed batters. Every batter knew exactly what Mariano was going to throw. He didn’t try to fool them, he didn’t have to.

A few years ago, when his velocity dropped from the mid-90s to the low 90s, it was suggested that he add an offspeed pitch to his repertoire. Mariano said he might add a changeup eventually, but not yet. “Because,” he said, “I don’t need to.”

Back to our game. The Yankees led by three runs heading into the bottom of the eighth. Rick and I were excited waiting for that Metallica track to announce Mariano’s entrance. However, the Yanks got an extra insurance run in the bottom of the 8th. Normally we would cheer each run, but this time we diehard Yankee fans were deflated because it was no longer a save situation, and we figured we’d missed our chance to see Mariano’s entrance.

Now Rick and I are the type of fans who’ll stay to the bitter end of late weeknight games when our team is trailing by several runs and we have to get up early for work the next day. Our loyalty (or is it insanity?) has been repaid with a few dramatic late-inning heroic comebacks over the years. This time, between the rotten weather, our disappointment over missing Mariano’s entrance, and realization that we faced a long three hour drive back home after a subway ride back to Manhattan, this time we opted to leave one inning early.

We were outside the Stadium heading for the No. 4 subway when the 9th inning began. We knew the exact moment the 9th inning started because the opening notes of Enter Sandman rang loud and clear. Unbelievably, Girardi was bringing Mariano into a non-save situation on a chilly night in May.  I shook my head both at the manager’s decision and the fact that we’d exited the park at the perfectly wrong moment: right before Mariano’s dramatic entrance.

But at least we got to hear it. From the elevated subway platform, we could see a sliver of the playing field grass and the small pitch count scoreboard in the right field upper deck. The scoreboard showed there were 2 outs and 2 strikes. Moments later, we heard the roar of the crowd and the golden voice of another legend began to sing:

Start spreading the news,
I’m leaving today.
I want to be a part of it,
New York, New York.

These vagabond shoes
Are longing to stray
Right through the very heart of it,
New York, New York.

I want to wake up
In the city that doesn’t sleep
And find I’m king of the hill
Top of the heap

The-e-e-e-se little town blues
Are melting away
I’m gonna make a brand new start of it
In old New York

If I can make it there
I’ll make it anywhere!
It’s up to you
New York, New York!

I just hope we get another chance to see Mariano play. Next time, if there is a next time, I won’t leave early even if it starts to snow or we’re losing by 10 runs. I wouldn’t miss another chance to see this for the world.

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