The Inside Rail

“Hey Miles, Mariano Rivera is coming to Saratoga this summer.”

It was a few weeks ago when I read the press release about Rivera’s planned visit to Saratoga. With a little coaxing from an overzealous dad, minutes later Miles handed me a piece of paper. It was his drawing of the greatest relief pitcher in history, in pencil. There’s Rivera in mid-windup, ball about to come firing from his right hand, Miles somehow conjuring up motion in his black and white sketch, the Yankees’ logo almost billowing off Rivera’s pinstripe shirt. Above and around the drawing, Miles had written a letter to the recently elected Hall of Famer.

Dear Mariano Rivera,

What do you say to the person who has 652 saves, 5 World Series rings, 100% of the votes in his hall of fame election, not to mention the best closer in the history of baseball. More people have walked on the moon then have scored postseason runs on you! I will say congragulations. I hope to meet you.

Love,

Miles 

After reading the letter, I mentioned that I would try to give it Rivera, maybe see if I could get his autograph. I said it like the longshot that it was, an if-worlds-collide possibility, and Miles looked at me like it was a sure thing. That’s the difference between a battered 49-year-old and an unblemished 10-year-old.

Friday, Mariano Rivera came to Saratoga. The first and only unanimous vote getter in the history of the Baseball Hall of Fame reunited with old friend, John Velazquez, starred at a luncheon, captivated writers, photographers, executives and a British-born valet at a press conference behind the jocks’ room and spoke to the crowd after the third race, a race named in his honor.

At the press conference, Rivera, in an open-neck blue dress shirt and khaki sport coat sat solo behind a table and answered questions, fielding them with ease and depth. In the first nine minutes, he said thank you 11 times. After every question, from everybody from Pat McKenna to Mike Kane, Rivera searched for the questioner and thanked them. In a time when appreciation and respect are being tested, Rivera talked about his appreciation and respect.

“First of all, I don’t consider myself better than anybody else,” said Rivera. “I consider myself humble and privileged that I was able to play the game for so long and respect the game and do my best for my team. And respecting others, respect the media, talk to the media, give them their time, understanding what they were all about, they were not my enemies.”

Rivera talked about his faith in God, his emotions and feelings about entering the Hall of Fame, about a church he and his wife renovated, his foundation to try to “break the ways people perceive” underprivileged boys and girls, his life in Panama, his dream.

“I was just thanking the Lord to play for just a few years. I just wanted to play for a few years,” said Rivera, whose induction ceremony is in Cooperstown July 21. “I said, ‘Lord, if you allow me to play for a few years, I’ll be happy. I’ll make some money, I’ll go back to Panama, make some business and I’ll be happy with that.’ Little did I know, New York City became my home. The few years I wanted to play happened to be 19 years. Of those 19 years, 17 years were closing. It was great joy, great moments, tough times, great times. But, overall, it was amazing.”

That was just one nugget in a mine full of them, words and actions from a humble star who rocked the world of baseball and brightened the day in Saratoga. Rivera made 13 all-star teams, won five World Series, saved 652 games.

I handed him a letter from a baseball-enraptured 10-year-old who draws pictures and collects autographs like Rivera won fans and saved games. A perfectly balanced athlete, looking as fit as the day he walked off the mound, Rivera read the letter, smiled with every word, laughed at the men on the moon line.

“Wow, this is amazing,” he said. “This is great.”

I pulled out another drawing Miles sketched of Rivera and asked him if he would sign it for my son. The greatest of them all took the Sharpie I had brought and asked me to spell Miles’ name.

In slow, composed penmanship, Rivera began to inscribe above the picture, “To Miles…All my best…” And then in long, looping arcs just like his ninth-inning, seventh-game windups that delivered lasers more restrictive than the moon, Rivera signed his name. It was like a work of art. Underneath it he wrote, “Sandman #42.”

Rivera handed me the paper.

“This is mine?” Rivera asked, holding Miles’ letter.

“Yes.”

Rivera cackled with delight.

Then he thanked me, once, twice, three times.