TAMPA, Fla. -- At the mouth of the room while almost no one was looking he whispered to no one in particular, "Wow," and maybe we can read something into Mariano Rivera's Saturday morning wow. Maybe there's meaning stuffed into the "o" and tucked into the "w's." Maybe his awe at the hubbub of his retirement press conference encapsulates his posture of gratefulness.
Surely it's akin to his statement, "I don't feel myself the greatest of all time." Probably it relates to how he continued with, "The reason I say that is I'm a team player and if it wasn't for my teammates, I wouldn't have the opportunity." Certainly it meshes with how he divvies up the storied 18-season past: "the good times and the bad times and the times of learning process."
The times of learning process . . .
Surely it dovetails with his celebrated penchant for helping young pitchers and his next ambition: "I'd love to work with the minor leagues." Probably it serves as evidence for his long comment of thankfulness that wound its way to the declarative: "I'm not sad." And absolutely it jibes with how he's attuned to the attire, still smitten with the uniform in which he always looked so sleek: "The Lord blessing me with this uniform, putting the New York Yankees uniform on and being thankful for every minute that I wear the uniform till the day I retire . . . The day that I make my last pitch, I will be more proud than anything not because of what we accomplished but because of what the Lord allowed me to wear."
What the Lord allowed me to wear . . .
Forty-three years old, 18 seasons in New York commotion (with a 19th and final to come), 608 saves and the 2.21 ERA and the 1,119 strikeouts, so many nights when placidly he took much of New York by the scruff and calmed it, and maybe the star from Panama still can't quite fathom the girth of his press conference.
So maybe that helps bolster general manager Brian Cashman's claim: "I've known him since he was in the minor leagues and he's never changed once. It's hard to become famous and hard to become rich and not change. He hasn't changed." And maybe that rings with what manager Joe Girardi said about when Rivera informed Girardi about his decision to retire: "I had a feeling when he came into my office, that's what it was about. Mo doesn't come into my office."
Mo doesn't come into my office . . .
Mo doesn't complicate or instigate, so maybe, in some way, the hushed little wow conveys a sense of self that helped make him try, helped make him endure and helped make him good, a sense that carries out to the mound and leads to longtime teammate Andy Pettitte saying this: "If you're a New York Yankee fan, he's gone out there an awful lot of times and made it look pretty easy."
In the lore, he'll always be the guy who arrived in 1995, who made his only 10 starts that year, who graced the bullpen by 1996, who started finding the cutter after that, who succeeded John Wetteland. Rivera almost went to Seattle in 1995 in a trade for Felix Fermin, as Cashman retold it Saturday, because owner George Steinbrenner fretted over the readiness of Derek Jeter, until the underlings -- Joe Torre, Gene Michael, Bob Watson, Cashman -- met in Torre's office, marshaled their forces and thwarted that fate. He, Rivera, was the guy who in 1995 had "a pretty straight fastball," Pettitte said, and "not a great slider, but real good command, but it was, like, 'Man, better come up with a lot better stuff to be a starter in this league.'"
Then along to the bullpen and, "Just seeing the smooth delivery and just how deceptive he was," Pettitte said, "and how he hides the ball . . ."
Then along came the cutter, and down went a slew of hopeful-to-hopeless batters, strewn from the gaudy late 1990s to the still-successful 2010s, foiled by the master of quelling.
After he had lent all that health to New York nerve endings, the end would have come last year but for the injury and the will to exit properly, but the end would have to come sometime, and when he formally scheduled it for this coming fall, he went all grateful: "It's not sadness because there's nothing to be sad of. I did everything in my power to enjoy this game, to do it well, to respect the game of baseball, have some joy and no one can take that joy from me. I'm not sad, to tell you the truth."
So he's the consensus B.C.E. (best closer ever), the guy with more than double the post-season saves of anybody else, with four strikeouts to every walk, with two seasons of 50-plus saves and eight of 40-plus and 14 of 30-plus, the star whose hefty cameos managed to hover out over the middle parts of games he had not yet entered -- and the guy who, after all that, brought his trademark dignity to his retirement press conference, saw the crowd and whispered, "Wow."
That might over-emphasize one wee wow. Or, not.