Mariano Rivera hasn’t made a lot of friends in Cleveland over the years (or any other city for that matter). The Yankees closer and future Hall of Famer, retiring at the end of this season, has converted 17 straight saves in Cleveland, dating back to 2003.
His dominance has been on display for what feels like an eternity to opposing fans, but in his farewell season, Rivera might just be changing some minds across the league.
With each stadium that Rivera visits for the last time, he is planning to meet with an unlikely group of people that includes a variety of team employees, from grounds crew members to those who handle the team’s payroll.
On rain-soaked Wednesday night in Cleveland, before the game itself would be canceled, Rivera took his turn with members of the Indians’ staff.
The first person he singled out was John Adams, the 61-year-old Indians fan who has been leading rallies with his drum for the past 40 years.
“Hey, you the man,” Rivera said. “Being loyal, being there day in and day out. I really respect that.”
“This is a stress relief for me,” Adams responded. “And you’ve given me a lot of stress.”
Rivera welcomed any and all questions, which ranged from how the game has changed (“You can’t pitch inside no more,” Rivera said) to his best/worst memories of Cleveland (Yes, he mentioned the 1997 ALDS series in which Sandy Alomar, Jr. hit a game-tying home run in the 8th inning, though he called it “the stone where I stepped to push forward because it helped me to become better”).
He also talked about the hardest hitter to face in his career – Edgar Martinez – and who he admired growing up, which just so happened to be Pelé. And after each question, Rivera made sure to thank the person who asked it.
Afterwards, he spent time with each person in attendance, taking pictures, talking some more and handing out autographed baseballs.
After years of terrorizing Indians fans with his pitching, he left this particular audience in awe of his gesture.
“I believe he’s now my favorite Yankees player,” said Karen Menzing, an accounting manager with the Indians. “I just think it’s awesome that he did this. He’s a very humble person.”
As Rivera does this in every city he visits, he will likely continue to impress team employees who work behind the scenes. According to Yankees director of media relations Jason Zillo, Rivera simply wants to find people who share a similar passion for the game of baseball.
It would be easy to dip into the familiar, perhaps crotchety, thought that “you just don’t see players like this anymore,” but the fact is that Rivera is truly a leader of the old guard. Not only is his love for the game palpable, but it’s harder than ever to find a consistently dominant closer, let alone one who will spend his entire career with one team, as Rivera has done for the last 19 seasons with the Yankees.
And despite a career of more than 600 saves (with an extra 42 in the postseason), an ERA of 2.22, and dominance that will likely never be seen again, he may be pulling off his most impressive accomplishment yet: fan conversion to the “Evil Empire” itself.
“I think I like the Yankees now,” Menzing said.