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Firn ’16: Exit Sandman

As a kid growing up outside of Boston, I developed a love for the Red Sox equaled in intensity perhaps only by my hatred for the New York Yankees. Geography demanded that I dislike the Yankees from birth, but I got my first real taste of the rivalry when Aaron Boone hit a cruel walk-off home run versus the Red Sox in game seven of the 2003 ALCS. Every time my Sox squared off against the Yankees, it felt like a historic baseball moment was right around the corner. Often, it was. From Pedro versus Zimmer to A-Rod versus Varitek, Boone to Big Papi, the rivalry was never short on drama.

At the center of Red Sox-Yankees lore was Mariano Rivera. This past week, Rivera threw his last competitive pitch after 19 years in the majors, all with the Yankees. Rivera is undoubtedly the greatest closer of all time. He is MLB’s all-time saves leader by a comfortable margin, both in the regular season and the playoffs. He has contributed heavily to five World Series championships and closed out four of them on his own. A 13-time All-Star and the 1999 World Series MVP, Rivera has defined what it means to be great in his position over the past two decades.

But more than that, Rivera has defined class. As a Red Sox fan, logic dictates that I should hate Mo, but I don’t. I detest the Yankees for countless reasons, not least of which is their penchant for buying wins with their seemingly endless cash reserves. Rivera, though, has been a homegrown staple of the Yankees for close to my entire life. The level of familiarity and history between Rivera and the Red Sox has given me a deep respect for his ability and his professionalism. Yes, I still rooted against Rivera because of the logo on his jersey. But Red Sox fans can hate someone like Alex Rodriguez on multiple levels. Rivera can be disliked only on one.

In an era marked by the prevalence of performance enhancing drugs, the integrity of many baseball stars has been called into question over the past 15 years. Rivera’s character track record, on the other hand, is squeaky clean. I’ve seen the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry incite some shameful moments — Pedro Martinez throwing 72-year-old Don Zimmer to the ground, Karim Garcia and Jeff Nelson provoking an attack on a Red Sox groundskeeper and countless barbs traded in the media. Through it all, Mo has remained a man of professionalism, dignity and humility. He signed six extensions to remain with the Yankees his entire career, a display of team loyalty so rare in today’s age of free agency and mega-contracts. For a man who grew up using a milk carton as a baseball glove in Panama, it’s always just been about hard work and winning baseball games. No disrespectful over-celebrations, no temper tantrums, no classless media stunts. Mo was always willing to tip his cap on the few occasions he was bested, his demeanor perpetually calm. Devoted to his fans and his community, Rivera epitomizes the athlete as a role model. Unlike many of his teammates over the years, Mo has always shown respect for the Red Sox. Now, I show it back.

I’ve heard the argument that Rivera’s impact on the Yankees’ prolonged success has been overrated due to the nature of his position. No one questions Rivera’s ability, but some claim that his gaudy statistics are borne mostly through the work of his teammates to create a save situation. As a general rule, the argument has credence. But the full story of Rivera’s legacy resides in the intangibles. A leader in the Yankees’ clubhouse for 19 years, Rivera’s impact on team culture can’t be measured. Numbers aside, opposing players and fans have feared Rivera and his devastating cut fastball for two decades. His entrance in the late innings of a close game always felt like a heavy door slamming shut.

When Rivera tore his ACL in 2012 at 42 years old, many thought his age precluded a return to competitive baseball. In hindsight, it was foolish to question his resolve. Equally as effective in his last season as in his first, Rivera never succumbed to the typical graceless decline of most stars. Through a 19-year career, Mo has exerted a powerful presence on his team, the league and the game of baseball. How fitting that Rivera was the last player ever allowed to represent Jackie Robinson’s number 42, retired by the league in 1997. How many other Yankees would receive a poignant commemorative tribute for their last appearance at Fenway Park? Mo was an integral part of an organization, a rivalry, that made me fall in love with baseball as an 8-year-old kid. Hearing Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” (Rivera’s trademark entrance song) blaring on the public address system always brought mixed emotions. At times I’ve hated him, admired him, feared him and marveled at him. But above all, I’ve always respected him. Goodbye, Mo. Baseball is sad to see you depart.