Before today's game at the Stadium, the Yankees will take some time to celebrate Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer who ever lived, who is retiring at the end of the season. (In addition to other honors, Mariano will become the first Yankee to have his number officially retired before he's played his last game.)
As many of you know, I'm lucky enough to call Mariano a close friend.
I first started working with Mariano in 1995, when he was a rookie, and Steiner Sports, though eight years old at the time, wasn't much more "seasoned."
Some nineteen years later, I'd like to think we "grew up" together, but I know that in reality, Mariano helped Steiner grow more than we could ever have helped him. Suffice it to say, it's been an honor to be along for the ride.
There's so much to say about what makes Mariano special, but today I just want to tell my favorite story about him.
Picture it. It's November, 2001. The World Series just ended. The Yankees lost a seven-game heartbreaker to the Arizona Diamondbacks - a World Series none of us will forget, for many reasons. Mariano was on the mound in the bottom of the ninth when Arizona came back from a 2-1 score to win 3-2 with a walk-off hit by Luis Gonzalez.
It was a pretty brutal end to the season for the Yankees and their fans.
And Mariano was credited with the loss.
Steiner Sports had scheduled an appearance for him for a week after the Series, but after the team got back to New York, Mariano basically holed himself up at home and we didn't hear from him at all. I was supposed to accompany him to Kraft Foods, where Mariano was going to throw out a ceremonial first pitch before a big company meeting of around 200 employees, make a little speech, then sign some autographs. The whole thing was only supposed to take 15 minutes, it would pay well, and it was conveniently located, as Mariano lives in Westchester. For my part, I really wanted to get in good with Kraft Foods because I was hoping to land a deal for Steiner Sports to get a limited edition toy in one of their Post cereals. Putting my own toy in a cereal box had been a dream of mine since I discovered them as a kid.
But all that week we were afraid to confirm the appointment.
Who knew what kind of state he was in.
Finally I got the nerve to call him. Mariano is a man of deep faith; he believes in divine intervention and always says that everything happens for a reason. That’s how he stays humble and grounded and never gets too down. I figured that he was probably taking it better than we were giving him credit for.
In reality, he didn't hesitate to confirm the appearance.
I picked him up in my car the next day and we drove to White Plains.
I drove him to a lot of appearances in those days; that's one of the ways we got close.
We would just be two guys in a car, talking. I had gotten past the "How do you throw the cutter?" and "Which hitters do you have to be most careful with?" and "How do you do it?" layers of Mo and started to actually get to know him.
Mariano will tell you that he's a Yankees pitcher - that's his profession - but it doesn't define who he is as a person.
So I didn't think he'd mind the jacket I was wearing the morning I picked him up. As I've mentioned before, I used to coach my kids' Little League teams, and that season I had just coached the Scarsdale Diamondbacks. The jacket was our team jacket; it had a Diamondbacks logo on it.
I got to his house and Mo got in the car, and we drove to Kraft Foods. Mo was pretty quiet, but he seemed okay. He didn't mention the jacket.
We got there and I reminded him that it was just going to be 15 minutes, he'd sign a few things, he'd give a little talk, we'd be in and out.
But of course it turned out to be anything but a short appearance. A ton of people attended and everyone wanted a piece of Mariano; he was mobbed. In the end he was with them for an hour.
Finally it ended, and we got out of the room.
We walked about five steps in the hallway and Mariano started just lacing into me.
"You said that was going to be fifteen minutes, Brandon," he said. "And it was an hour. Who else would have done this for you, a week after the season? Would Derek? Would Bernie?"
"Mo," I said. "Please don't yell at me here. Wait till we get outside. I'm trying to get a big deal done with these people."
So we got outside and he was just boiling. I was starting to think it could be the end of our whole relationship.
He's going on and on.
"You said it would be in and out," he said. "I'm in there signing a million things, I'm kissing babies."
It continued all the way into the car. "I gotta get this guy home," I was thinking. "Gotta get him to cool down."
We pulled up to the gate and the security guard there, whose name was Sheldon, did something I'd never seen before.
He leaned his head all the way inside the car.
"Mariano Rivera!" he said. "I can't believe it."
I was afraid Mo was gonna flip, but he didn't.
"Do you want an autograph?" Mo said.
"You're the most highly-respected person in the neighborhood where I live," Sheldon said. "Because you're so humble and grateful. It's just an honor to be in your company. i would never ask you for an autograph. You know how many celebrities have come here in limos and don't even talk to anyone? You came in a normal car with this gentleman...you're the greatest."
Mo said nice to meet you, and I introduced myself, and then we said goodbye to Sheldon. I saw that Mo was now smiling, which was a relief.
"Sheldon was divine intervention," I thought. "Saved my tail."
Then Mariano spoke.
"Brandon, I'm sorry I was angry with you," he said. "You're my friend, and you do a million things for me, and if you need a favor, I'm there for you."
I was greatly relieved.
"But I need to tell you one thing," he said. "If you ever come to my house wearing a Diamondbacks jacket again, we are going to have a major problem. How dare you do that. What is wrong with you?"
I apologized and then Mariano suggested we go somewhere for lunch.
We went to an Italian place, and when we sat down, Mo said, "I have to go over what happened in Arizona."
He said he hadn't talked to anyone about it yet. He described what he went through from Game 6 on. He took responsibility for everything, and told me how tough a loss it was to swallow. I'll never forget it.
I'll never forget that whole day.
I love this story because it shows both sides of Mariano - the tremendously generous, humble man who doesn't let fame and fortune prevent him from being a genuine and good person. And the super-competitive athlete who bleeds for his team.
We all know it's likely will never see an athlete quite like him again.
PS - Here are some great videos of Mo from over the years:
And don't forget my podcast with Mo.