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Friday, September 27, 2013

So long, Mo...

This may be the first and last baseball blog you'll ever read from me. I don't know. At lunch today I browsed over to ESPN and saw the headline, "Tearful Rivera says Bye to Bronx."

It's not that I never watch baseball. I almost never watch baseball. I'm not going to dig around a pull up all the impressive career statistics from Rivera's career. I'm not going to wax poetic about certain games he pitched or the five World Series titles he won with the Yankees. I probably never watched any of them - unless it was against the Atlanta Braves. There are plenty of baseball lovers who deserve the honor of writing about Mariano Rivera as he rides off into the baseball sunset.

But the whole thing did get me thinking about the subject of retirement. My birthday was yesterday; and while I've still got more than a decade - maybe two - until the age Social Security believes a person should retire, I have to say I've been thinking about it more and more since crossing the half-century mark. Regardless of what I may think and feel when I walk out of some building or other for the last time, it will not be anything close to what Rivera and other long-serving athletes experience.

Mrs. X and I will ride into the sunset one day...

Tens of thousands of Yankee fans gave Rivera a thundering ovation, chanting his name and, if reports are true, shed a few tears of their own. The opposing fans cheered; the opposing players stood in homage; the umpires bent the rules. Everyone basked in the moment that was so full of poignant emotion and meaning - for baseball fans. And then it was over. After a night of pomp and ceremony, a man's career came to a close. How will Rivera handle it?

Just think about that for a moment. For folks like you and I, we don't have cheering sections at work. We don't have people adoring us when we beat a tight deadline. We don't have people threatening to kill us when we mess up a spreadsheet. We don't get a standing ovation when a project we worked hard on is awarded to our company. I've often sympathized with professional athletes who encounter life problems after retiring from their sports. These are men and women who have known nothing since they were kids except their sport. Their entire lives have been centered around their sport.

I remember walking out onto the field at Tampa Stadium - the Old Sombrero - at halftime of a Tampa Bay Rowdies' game. I was eighteen and a counselor at the old Camp Kickinthegrass that the Rowdies held each summer. We led a group of young boys and girls through a series of soccer drills on the surprisingly convex playing surface. The excitement and adrenaline rush of being out on that field in front of thousands of's hard to explain. Now multiply that by a million and about twenty-five years and you have the depth of experience and emotion someone like Rivera encounters in their final professional game.

Rodney Marsh and the boys

Heck, I still remember goofing around with some of the other counselors out at the University of South Florida where the camp was held for three weeks each summer. All the kids had gone to the dorms and we were just playing around on the big field. I was in goal and some of the college players were taking shots. In between lame attempts at being a keeper, I looked up and saw Rodney Marsh, a well-known English footballer walking up the sideline with Gordon Banks, perhaps one of the best goalkeepers to ever play the game. In that moment, one of the college players hit a beautiful curling shot toward the top-right corner of the goal. Now, I'm only five-eight in my socks but I took a big step to my left and launched my body up and out. With the fingertips of my left hand I touched that shot over the bar in what had to be one of the prettiest saves anyone had ever made. I rose up on my knees and looked over at the sideline - there was Mr. Banks in conversation with  Marsh and other pros; but he was looking at me. We made eye contact for just a second and he nodded, as if to say, "Nice one, mate."

I was on cloud nine the rest of the night. One of the best keepers ever had seen me make a great save and acknowledged, however briefly, my achievement. I wish I could say that moment led to me rededicating myself to the sport, getting serious about my training and going on to achieve the professional career that I dreamed about. But it didn't. That was in the 1970's and soccer just wasn't that big in the States. The NASL folded a few years later and frankly, I was just too lazy and undisciplined at eighteen to put in the reps.

But I can appreciate greatness when I see it. So hats off to Mariano Rivera, You had a career of moments that top my pitiful five seconds of glory. You got to live your dream for decades. Your playing career may be over sir, but cherish what you had. I know you'll miss the thrill of jogging onto the field as the speakers blast out Enter Sandman.

I know you'll miss the jazz you got from digging down deep and finding that one pitch to save the day and win another title for the Yankees. But you have a wife and kids who are the most ardent of fans and now, they get to see their hero every day.

When you ride off into the sunset, be happy that you have them riding alongside you.


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