Too good to be true? Luckily, no
Rooting for a juggernaut is no fun.
That’s especially true when the entity is consistently at or near the top of its profession. Sure, there are always bandwagon-jumpers who constantly want to bask in reflected glory, but believe it or not, winning can get old, particularly when it’s not you or your favorite enterprise doing it.
Think I’m kidding? How many outside of South Beach were thrilled to see the Miami Heat buy their way to another championship this spring?
During their heyday, the Dallas Cowboys riled plenty of fans, both with their ongoing success and their pompous “America’s Team” moniker. Anyone old enough to remember that era also recalls how most of America became a fan of whatever team the Cowboys were playing in a particular week.
In the sports world, however, nothing trumps the New York Yankees when it comes to engendering fan hatred. Except for the weeks following the 9/11 tragedies in 2001, the Bronx Bombers have never been able to seduce the masses.
Some might say that derives, at least in part, from I-Hate-New York sentiment that runs rampant in so many geographical areas. Maybe so, but how then does one explain the disparity between the Yankees and Mets?
Since they share a residence in the same city, shouldn’t New York’s National League entry be as loathed as its American League one? Yes, but we know that’s not the case.
No, the Yankees are hated for their 27 world championships, the most won by any professional sports franchise in North America.
By extension, that means people also dislike individual members of the organization. Once upon a time, guys like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle were revered by a lot of fans — especially kids — who lived beyond the boundaries of the Big Apple, but after the late George Steinbrenner began outspending other owners in the 1970s to buy up whatever talent he desired for his roster, virtually no one on the New York payroll was spared enemy fans’ wrath.
You didn’t have to live in the deep South to foster a deep animosity toward Yankees.
Alex Rodriguez is the latest prime example of what it means to be a Yankee in a Yankee-despising nation, and he made it worse on himself by allegedly not playing by the rules. But in the midst of all the Rodriguez-generated chaos stands Mariano Rivera.
The greatest relief pitcher ever certainly has the necessary credentials to be disliked, but Rivera isn’t. In a recent road contest, in fact, he received a standing ovation from Minnesota Twins fans — right before he recorded a two-pitch save, the 635th of his storied career.
How come? Sure, Rivera announced his retirement at the end of this year, but so what? As great as he’s been, I don’t foresee Derek Jeter getting the same treatment at an away game when he’s making his farewell tour around the league.
What fans in Minnesota were cheering wasn’t Rivera the pitcher, but Rivera the man. Let me explain.
Thumbing through an edition of the New York Times a while back, I came across a Page 1 story by David Waldstein that talked about what Rivera is doing when visiting cities for the last time. Traditionally, when a great in any sport has retired, the host city presents that individual with various gifts, some heartfelt and others silly.
But while some of that has been happening with Rivera, so, too, has something else. As Waldstein reported, Rivera is spending a chunk of his time meeting people.
And we’re not talking muckety-mucks here, but real, everyday folks, the kind whose existences usually get overlooked or flat-out ignored. Certainly, guys circling around in Rivera’s millions-earning stratosphere don’t make a habit of rubbing elbows or sharing small talk with “little people,” but Rivera is.
In Minnesota, for example, he met with a group that included a stadium security guard, grounds crew worker, organist, usher, chef and season-ticket holder. Elsewhere, it’s been secretaries, custodians, press-box attendants, community-relations workers and, by Rivera’s special request, a drum-pounding fan who’s been a staple at Cleveland Indians games for as long as the hurler can remember.
In an interview he gave to another publication, Rivera said he’s doing all this to express his gratitude.
“I just wanted to say thank you,” he said. “I’ve been so blessed to be able to play this game, but we wouldn’t be able to do it without the help and support of all these people behind the scenes. They make baseball work as much as we do.”
And then before he leaves to get ready for that night’s game, Rivera reminds each group that they do not need to root for him or the Yankees. He said he loves the passion they have for their own teams and he wants “them to hold that.”
Rivera, by the way, does more than just speak for a few minutes. According to Waldstein’s story, the pitcher receives from each home team a list of attendees and then “goes over it as if examining scouting reports on opposing hitters … and learns the names.” When he finally meets them, Rivera actually converses with his guests, asking them about their jobs and their lives.
Take a moment and let this all sink in, and then ask yourself how something like this is able to occur in today’s egomaniacal athletic climate. I’m guessing you don’t have a ready answer, either.
The more negative among us might conclude that Rivera is doing this solely for publicity reasons, but that argument doesn’t hold any water. First off, he’s already viewed as baseball’s greatest modern-day ambassador, so it’s not as if Rivera needs to repair a damaged reputation.
Secondly, he’s retiring to private life in the fall, so why would he worry about his public image at this stage of his career? And if this were being done for promotional reasons, wouldn’t the Yankees have made sure the story was splashed everywhere?
I didn’t know about it until I saw the New York Times article. And I imagine this is the first time many of you are hearing of it.
No, it comes down to nothing more than Mariano Rivera being one heck of a human being. Not perfect, of course — after all, he is a Yankee — but boasting a solid enough character to realize that the world really doesn’t revolve around him alone and that others have a rightful place within it.
It’s a shame we can’t turn back the clock and have Rivera around for another couple decades. I know it might mean more Yankees titles, but that would actually be appropriate.
Rivera, after all, is one nice guy who never should finish anywhere but first.