Weirdly, it was his first stunningly unexpected loss, just as he was beginning to hint at future greatness, that somehow made him even more likeable. That would have been in Cleveland, on a Sunday in October of 1997, in the AL Division Series. He'd saved 43 games in his first full season as a closer, with an ERA of 1.88. Which meant that no way Sandy Alomar, Jr., would take him deep in a one-run playoff game. But he did, in the eighth inning, tying a game the Indians would win, as they would the series.
Mariano Rivera wasn't flawless. Near-flawless, yes, but thankfully human.
Weirder still? That his two subsequent, historic blown saves over the next six years -- Luis Gonzalez' humpbacked liner in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, and Bill Mueller's single that scored Dave Roberts in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS against the Sox, sparking Boston's historic comeback -- not only didn't seem to faze Rivera, they didn't faze us. Such was the comportment of the man that the failures left no taint, fading into irrelevance as he rebounded through the years, again and again and again. It's what we admire in anyone, not just athletes: the ability to meet your failures gracefully and recover from them nobly.
Now that it's over, and we can take stock of Rivera's nearly two-decade journey through the majors, it's hard to not think of how Ancient Greek literature portrayed their gods as having maddeningly human foibles. The Greeks were too smart to believe in perfection. They needed the godly men and women on Mt. Olympus to be recognizably human, while also endowed with something indefinably ... more.
I'm not suggesting that Rivera, a baseball player, is any kind of a deity; sports, of all worldly arenas, features no otherworldlies. (Or, as Stanley Woodward wrote in New York Herald Tribune sometime in the 1930's, "Don't god them up!") But in the Bronx, year after year, he gave us something indefinably more. He not only smiled easily and naturally, never making an excuse, and was ineffably steely on the mound at all the right times; he was one of ours. He was homegrown. He was family.
He was born in Panama and came north, possessing no knowledge of the English language, to join a new family -- a sports family -- in Greensboro, N.C., and then Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and then Albany, N.Y., and then Columbus, Ohio. When he hit 161st Street in 1995, a few blocks south of the Grand Concourse, he was home for the rest of his career.
It's no small thing, this idea of being raised in and staying in one sporting family for an entire career. It's what helped make Mariano a singular man, and it's what makes this sport unique. Major League Baseball comprises a finite number of big-city franchises -- an exclusive American club -- but unlike the NFL and NBA, every team's farm system reaches back out into the heartland, into hundreds of towns. Fans who forked up five bucks one night to see a minor league first baseman two years out of high school can revel proudly when he starts to blossom in the majors. Ask the fans in New Mexico and Iowa and Texas who watched Willie Stargell on his way to joining Pittsburgh's (We Are) Family, or the fans in Rochester who watched Ripken from afar.
Consider how cool it is, for the fans of a team that critics always rip for buying the rings (me often included), to say of the best reliever in the game's history, "He grew up with us." The 1996-2000 era? Wholly anchored by Bernie and Jeter and Posada and Mariano. Homegrown.
It's a funny thing about baseball. Just when you think it's gotten too slow and too dull and too static and too mired in numbers, you get drawn back in because of its constancy, its 162 games, its daily reassurance that the rhythms of life are ongoing, and that a bad day today can be countered by a good day tomorrow. Football struts and splashes out a big show, once a week for five months. Baseball's season unfolds the way a life does: at a pace that allows for reflection, and for fixing and tweaking and learning, without having to panic after a pratfall. Just get back up and move on.
And that's what he did. Better than anyone.
The greatest symbol of the purity of Rivera's legacy has nothing to do with the numbers, as astounding as they are. It had to do with this season, when, just as Ripken took a wonderful, slow jog around the entire perimeter of Camden Yards when he passed Gehrig, Rivera did the same thing around the league. In city after city, they honored an opponent because he was family. You'd see a photograph of Mariano, with that cool, natural, relaxed smile, chatting with the other team. Or a shot of him trying to keep a straight face as some team gave him a really weird gift (Minnesota? A chair made out of broken bats.)
Now ask yourself: How come that endless tribute never felt as if the whole thing was just too much? In city after city after city? I don't know the answer. I have no idea, other than since it was Mariano Rivera, it somehow felt just right.
Now he's gone. Those tears were moving, and we'll see them for a long time, again and again, and even if YES uses them as a marketing tool, and John Sterling's carney-barker voice tries to mutate the moment into an embarrassing shill, they'll transcend that attempt at exploitation. They were Mariano's tears, and they were our tears: of sadness at the end of this chapter, but of joy in the celebration of family.