Michael Mercer, over at Internet Monk, posted today a wonderful piece on a man I have admired for the past 17 years, Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera. It is a great post, and reading it took me back for a few minutes…..
I stopped having sports heros sometime during high school–mainly because I aspired to be one myself. I played organized baseball since I was 9. My parents were German immigrants and so I had to discover the game for myself. And like most of the good things that happened in my life, baseball and I met unexpectedly.
I was flipping channels on June 8, 1969 and landed on WPIX channel 11. It was Mickey Mantle Day, the celebration of the career of an immortal player. Something grabbed me and I was drawn into the Yankee mystique, without knowing what that was. I shudder to think what I would have become had I stopped flipping at WOR channel 9 and become a Mets fan. Like the guy who missed his flight that later went down in a storm, I choose not to dwell on that.
On that day I also became a baseball fan and I played the next season. My first uniform was a green t-shirt with “V.F.W.” on the front and a flannel hat. I still have the hat in my man-cave, though the “RV” (River Vale, NJ) fell off who knows how long ago. I wore number six, like my hero at the time, Roy White.
I remember they made me a catcher. I remember more vividly finding out soon enough why catchers wear cups. I remember my first hit–a single up the middle–and the crack of the bat. Aluminum bats were introduced the next year and generations of kids will never know the absolute perfection of what it feels like to hit a baseball on the sweet spot and hear a crack instead of a ping. As corny as it sounds, I remember the small of the leather glove. To this day, whenever I pick up a glove I hold it to my nose and take in deep draft of what I am sure heaven smells like.
From that moment on, all I wanted to do was play baseball. I didn’t know what a biblical scholar was, or what they did (I still don’t).
I played all through grade school, high school, and college. I didn’t make my grade school team until I was in 8th
grade or my high school team until I was a senior. I grew late and couldn’t keep up. I had an OK college career and threw hard enough to attract the attention of some scouts. I still hold a few Messiah College records: most wild pitches (career and single season), most walks (single season) and and most strikes outs per nine innings (12.52 in 1982). I just reared back and threw. I didn’t care where the ball went.
Along the way I suffered two debilitating injuries. I blew out my elbow one week after my college career ended, working out with a local team as I was getting for a tryout with the Baltimore Orioles. I didn’t know it then, but my career was over as soon as I hear my elbow pop. The other injury I suffered a year earlier–like Mariano, I tore my ACL and some cartilage (playing intramural soccer). I never really recovered.
When I saw Mo go down in the outfield shagging flies, I winced with pain and nearly grabbed my own knee. The pain is excruciating. Mo swears he will not go out like this, but on his terms. I hope so. Knee injuries are treated very differently today than 30 years also, but Mo is also 42. My money says that he is not coming back, and if he does, he won’t be “Mo.”
Anyway, forgive the self-indulgence. This post started as a pointer to Michael Mercer’s excellent post, but once you wind me up, well, you just have to let things play out or I get cranky. A lot of memories were triggered the last few days, and Michael’s post brought it all together for me. I hope you have a chance to read it, Yankee fan or not.
Profesional athletes get a bum rap. Many of them are high school draft picks who grow up in hotel rooms going from game to game, and it is sometimes easy to understand the stupid things they do and say. But Mo. Well, he’s not like that. He is a man of grace, honor, and humility–not to mention the greatest reliever who ever lived.