COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — History has always surrounded Mariano Rivera. It carried him throughout his career, as he collected milestone after milestone. It defined his retirement, when he became the first ever player elected unanimously into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
But it’s also reminded him of what he’s left behind, and of what baseball never can get back. It reminds him of George and Roy, and of the player he calls Mr. Jackie, whom he’s never met but desperately wishes he could have.
That came up on Saturday, a day before Rivera was set to achieve the highest honor for a retired player, enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. Big names descend on Cooperstown on days like these, and running into Joe Morgan and Lou Piniella and Goose Gossage is about as easy as running into your neighbor at the grocery store. But when Rivera is asked who he’s most excited to see, he can’t quite answer right away. Because the real answer is “Mr. Jackie.”
“He’s already passed, so I don’t even want to speak about it,” Rivera said. “That was Mr. Jackie. That was the guy that I always wanted to [meet].”
And though Rivera was not quite three at the 1972 passing of Jackie Robinson — the man who broke the color line — the closer took solace in the idea that they’ll live on together in some portion of history: Two No. 42s — Rivera that last player ever to be issued that number before it was retired for all major-league teams — both enshrined in the same three-story building in upstate New York. Rivera didn’t even know the significance of that uniform number when it was first handed to him, but he does now, and he’s embraced it with a life also dedicated to philanthropy.
“No words for that,” Rivera said. “That man, as a minority, he gave us everything that he had, for us to come in and he did it with class. So, for me, to be a minority and wear his number is something special.”
Of course, this usually joyous weekend already was tinged with a sense of loss. Roy Halladay’s display is right next to Rivera’s. There museum goers will see a baseball with three parallel lines scrawled on it in blue ink. The writing belongs to Halladay. The cutter belongs to Rivera.
That ball was a product of an All-Star Game chat, when Rivera taught the late Halladay how to throw the pitch, much to the chagrin of his Yankees teammates. On Sunday, Brandy Halladay will take the stage in lieu of her husband, who died in a single-person plane crash in 2017.
“Oh my God,” Rivera said of Halladay. “I wish that he could be here. He earned it, he deserved it and gave us a lot of great memories. A guy that always was giving his best and never gave up.”
And there was another absence. If George Steinbrenner loved anything, it was being the best. And there’s no doubt he would have gotten a kick out of the fact that his mild-mannered closer was the first player to be elected unanimously.
“[He] would say, ‘Kid, great job,’ ” Rivera said. “He always called me kid . . . That’s one person that I would love for him to be here because I know he would be proud of me. For sure, he would be proud of me.”
Like the other two, Rivera hopes Steinbrenner follows him to Cooperstown one day.
“If I had to give it all,” to get Steinbrenner recognized, “I would do that,” Rivera said.
But for now, he’ll try his best to have all the fun he can. Rivera said that when he played, he never thought about the Hall. “I never even thought I’d make any All-Star teams,” he said. “I didn’t play for those types of things. I played to win championships.”
Even now, he insists he doesn’t think he’s better than anyone else. When he was asked about the other closers in the Hall of Fame — a relatively small brotherhood that includes names such as Gossage, Trevor Hoffman, Rollie Fingers and fellow inductee Lee Smith — Rivera demurs. Yes, even though he was voted in unanimously. Even through his 652 saves are the most in major-league history.
“I’m a rookie in this thing,” he said. “They are way ahead of me. I can never measure myself with one of them. I’m just happy to be here.”
It’s been a fun week for Rivera, a great week. One that Rivera has enjoyed thoroughly. There’s been dinners and golf and so much nostalgia. But for once, Rivera is ignoring his own advice. Whenever he’s asked how he became so dominant in a role that has so much potential for failure, he says a version of the same thing. Have a short memory. Forget about yesterday.
Just not this weekend. This weekend is about remembering. Oh, and one more thing: He’s absolutely sure Robinson could hit his cutter.
“He would have, he would have,” he said. “I would have put it in there for him to hit.”
THE CLASS OF 2019
Harold Baines, OF, DH
Teams: White Sox, Orioles, Rangers, Athletics, Indians
Team logo on plaque: White Sox
Mariano Rivera, P
Roy Halladay, P
Teams: Blue Jays, Phillies
Edgar Martinez, DH
Mike Mussina, P
Teams: Yankees, Orioles
Lee Smith, P
Teams: Cubs, Red Sox, Cardinals, Angels
Expos, Reds, Yankees, Orioles