This is the way things work: We don’t love athletes for the name on the back of the jersey but the name on the front. There’s a reason I’m not a Michael Jordan fan, despite the fact that he’s the best basketball player ever. And there’s a reason I’m an Andy Pettitte fan, despite the fact that most other admitted HGH users don’t get a pass. My love for a player starts with the letters NY (and more recently P-I-T-T) and builds from there, not the other way around.
In 2013, there are fewer athletes than ever to love. Many of your favorites will undoubtedly switch jerseys before their careers are out. Players become a part of your team, and by the time you build an attachment to them they’re traded away or leave in free agency, and soon you find yourself cursing the day you ever cheered for Babe Ruth — or for the more modern among us, say, Nick Swisher (Johnny Damon? Wayne Gretzky? LeBron James?). Sometimes not even great success or a boatload of money or a personal connection can keep your favorites from moving on. Such is the state of modern sports: with so many business decisions and personal preferences and emotional whims at odds with one another, a bond is rarely formed long enough to be broken.
So the love for the jersey (or as “Seinfeld” called it, the laundry) is all that remains. But the Yankees have become a hard team to love over the years. They’re the Evil Empire, lacking in the warriors of yore (O’Neil, Martinez, Williams) and reliant on overpaid underachievers (too many to list), some of whom have been outed as outright cheaters. As a lifelong Yankees fan whose first memory of baseball is the ache of that 1995 loss to the Mariners, waking up a Stormtrooper — and having to grin and bear it — sometime in the mid-2000s was a tough reality to face.
There is one thing that has kept my love for the Yankees alive over the past decade or so: the Core Four. Mo, Jete, Andy and Jorge embodied everything that was good and right about the Yankees — the passion, the camaraderie, the excellence, the winning of many championships — and only tinges of the bad (the HGH slip-up by Pettitte, the fact that these guys do make an ass-ton of money). As the bad contracts and embarrassing scandals piled up around them, the Core Four remained my reason for staying true to the team. The rules had reversed: I was now a fan of these guys, and as various pretenders put on the pinstripes I began to love the names on the back more than the front. (This is difficult to do with the Yankees, who have no names on the backs of their uniforms. But I persevered.)
Unfortunately, I could not hold these players in my line of sight the way I held them in my heart. The memories of their triumphs have, in the last couple years, been replaced by the reality of their decline. Jorge’s ride into the sunset was more like taking a trip with Silvio Dante into the woods (spoilers?). Andy left us for Houston — Houston! — and came back hormone-stained. Derek, when he isn’t injured, has become the subject of arguments like “Is Derek Jeter actually really terrible at defense?” My formative memories of their incredible successes — like all of my formative memories, really — drifted further and further into the ether.
Only one guy has stayed true to form. Only one guy has been as professional as he is potent, as powerful as he is predictable. Mariano Rivera came in, and the show was over, folks. And when it wasn’t — because Mo did blow saves and lose games — you could be sure that the demeanor and poise and the cut fastball would be back the next day. And he did it year in, year out: As all the metrics and statistics and even the eyeball test will tell you, he stayed great until the very end.
When Mariano Rivera goes — and that final bell is only days away from ringing; really, after last night, it has already rung — so too go the last vestiges of what made the Yankees, to me, so special. I don’t know a time when Mariano Rivera wasn’t there to close out a game, to put minds at rest, to say the right thing and play the right way and wear the pinstripes as well as any man ever has. There will be no passing of the torch, from an athletic or professional standpoint. The light that he held, particularly when you think of what the Yankees will be in 2014, is essentially gone.
Many people have compared Mariano’s retirement with the passage of time in their own lives, and wonder how the years managed to slip by so quickly, where the young flamethrower turned into a crafty relic (albeit a relic that can still dumbfound hitters with the best of them). I prefer not to make that analogy, because I’m still young and I know that there are many reasons to miss my youth beyond not getting to see a guy play baseball on TV (summer vacation, where art thou?). But I know that I’ll never have another player so perfectly sum up an era, a mindset, a sense of place in the (sports) world like Mariano Rivera did for me as a kid and young adult. The greatest player in Yankees history could still be yet to come, and I know that I’ll likely treat him with the same sarcastic bitter wit that has become my trademark at family dinners and in daily Internet diatribes.
That’s not all on me, however — I know that there just won’t be another like Mariano (remember when Joba Chamberlain was the next big thing?), and I’m glad for it.
So when Mo walked off the field last night after shedding the most majestic tears I’ve ever seen on Andy Pettitte’s shoulder, I didn’t even see the uniform. I didn’t see the furious applause or hear the uproarious cheers of fellow New Yorkers. I didn’t see the seats that my own butt has been planted in on many summer and autumn nights (kind of, if you count “Yankee Stadium” as every iteration of Yankee Stadium and not just this most recent one) as countless emotive memories were made. I just saw Mo. Number 42. The last of his kind.
I didn’t want him to go. But he went.
And so, like Gatsby, I beat on, my boat against the current, bearing back ceaselessly into the past — when the Yankees were great and the talent was homegrown and the opening bars of “Enter Sandman,” the patter of 42’s cleats on the grass and the only cut fastball of its kind were just another eight innings away. Ok, fine, I can’t help it: make us young, make us young, make us young.
Photo via Getty