By Jason Klein
As Seen in In New York Magazine – 4/5/12
If tomorrow’s Opening Day is the beginning of the end for Mariano Rivera, I’m proud to say I faced him at least once during his remarkable career.
The first time I saw Rivera throw a baseball, I was fifteen years-old. It was 1995, and I couldn’t drive a car yet. Luckily, to tag along on his impending ride into baseball immortality, I didn’t have to.
For half of my life, I’ve watched the Yankee closer dominate a sport like no other athlete ever has. His tranquil disposition and devastating cutter are both legendary. His career regular season numbers are staggering and his postseason stats are incomprehensible.
His competitive spirit and propensity to always do the right thing help make him the most revered player in baseball. In May of 2007, I got a first-hand glimpse of both these remarkable traits when I personally stepped up to the plate against The Great Rivera.
While working at Steiner Sports Marketing, I would periodically unite passionate clients with their sports heroes during a public question and answer session or a private meet and greet event. I had arranged to meet Rivera prior to an afternoon game in the Bronx, and introduce him to a client’s child. The brave youngster was battling illness and desperately wanted to meet his favorite player, Mariano.
The meeting was scheduled for 10:45 AM behind the Yankees Dugout, just before the gates were scheduled to open to the general public. Rivera was to huddle up with us for about 5-10 minutes, take some pictures, and sign some baseballs. There were very few people in the Stadium at that point so connecting wouldn’t be an issue if things went according to schedule. They didn’t.
By 11:00 AM, Rivera had yet to emerge from the clubhouse and other fans were starting to make their way into the building. I reassured the child that everything would work out as planned, but the beads of sweat on my neck told a different story. I was panicking.
Was I being stood up by Mariano Rivera? How could this be reconciled? What would I tell the child? How could I explain to my boss, Steiner Sports CEO, Brandon Steiner? It was embarrassing, like a hitter’s feeble attempt to connect with one of Rivera’s cutters.
Then, “The Sandman” entered. The greatest closer in the history of baseball popped his head over the top of the dugout looking for me. It was 11:10 AM, the gates were open, and I was now surrounded by autograph-seeking fanatics. I yelled for Rivera. So did the three hundred other people now standing with me. He couldn’t find me in the crowd and disappeared back into the dugout. The meeting never occurred.
Despite their distinct disappointment, the child and his family were very appreciative of my efforts. I profusely apologized and left them to enjoy the afternoon from their seats, just behind the dugout.
Two days passed and I received a call from Brandon. He summoned me to his office to discuss my botch in the Bronx. When I entered, there was already someone sitting with him – a balding, lanky-looking guy in a brown polo and black jacket.
“Come on in, Jason,” Brandon bellowed with a smile from ear to ear. “Time to defend yourself against Mo! It’s Klein v. Rivera today.”
The skinny fellow sitting in the office calmly uncrossed his legs, spun himself around, and flashed a bright toothy smile in my direction. It was Mariano Rivera.
I dug in against the legendary pitcher, blaming his tardiness for the plan’s failure. Rivera stared me down and unloaded some high heat in my direction. He contended that he was exactly where he was supposed to be and that I was the one who dropped the ball.
Mo shot me a look, and then grinned. He was toying with me, trying to break me like an opponent’s bat. I didn’t stand a chance, did I? He was Mariano Rivera, after all.
I knocked the dirt out of my cleats and stepped back in the box.
Again, I detailed exactly what went down, condemning Rivera’s poor punctuality and questioning his recollection of the day’s events. The competitive Rivera calmly and quietly shook his head in disagreement. Brandon, still smiling as he presided over the dispute, seemed to enjoy watching me try to take down the celebrated closer.
It was clear, this was going nowhere. Like on the mound, Rivera, the ultimate competitor, could do no wrong.
Our showdown yielded a benign base on balls as I walked out of Brandon’s office without resolution. Baffled by Rivera’s stubbornness, I slumped back down at my desk and got back to work. I remember thinking, this must be what it’s like to hit against the tenacious pitcher.
Then, like he seemingly always does, Rivera did the right thing. He stopped by my desk on his way out and assured me he would connect with the boy and his family at an upcoming game. He confidently nodded his head at me as if to say, “I got this, don’t worry.”
He never admitted he was late the first time – he didn’t have to. After all, a good closer is always last to enter a game, but ultimately, seals the deal when the pressure is on. Mo did just that.
He met the boy during the next home stand. The get-together was just a brief stop on baseball’s freeway for Rivera, but it was a prime example of how the closer always gets the job done. He’s hinted that 2012 will be his final stop. If he decides to take the exit ramp at season’s end, it will take him directly to Cooperstown.
He’s a Hall of Famer both on, and off the field.
It’s been a heck of a ride for Mo.
I’m glad I got to face him at least once along the way.
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