Exit Sandman

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Thursday night – the final Yankees home game of 2013. The final home appearance of Mariano Rivera. I spent a small fortune to bring the entire family (me, Jack, Alex, Shani) and my long-time friend Pete and his fiancé.

The game was weird and not what I expected it to be. I will explain and I will begin with some background to understand what Rivera’s last game means to me.

Baseball is very different than other sports. Other sports are about two teams doing battle. Football, basketball, hockey: those sports are the fight scene from an action movie.

Baseball is about tension. It’s a suspense movie. Baseball is the hero walking down the dark alley and you’re all tensed up because you know the bad guy is going to spring out at them. For 3 hours it keeps you in a constant state of tension.

Your team comes up to bat and the whole time:

Please get a hit, please get a hit, please get a hit

The opposing batter hits the ball into the outfield:

Please be an out, please be an out, please be an out

A close game can be unbearable to get through – each moment you’re all wrapped up hoping for something to happen or begging for it not to happen.

That’s what made Mariano Rivera so incredible. Because for the last 19 years, whenever the Yanks were winning by one run going into the final inning, you’d be there praying that they can just hold the other team off for one last inning. And then Metallica would blare out over the stadium and everyone roared and sprang to their feet. Rivera was coming in to pitch – and you knew the game was over. The other team had no chance. The unbearable tension of the past 8 innings were now turned to joyous triumph – Enter Sandman – Yankess were going to win.

And I guess that’s what made this game so weird. Usually Rivera’s entrance was that tremendous relief of tension – but this game had none of that. The Yanks are already out of the playoffs so the game meant nothing.

I watched the game sitting next to Pete – Pete is so goddam fun to watch a game with. He played baseball in high school and he’s been a fan his whole life. He knows the ins and outs of the game and points out little things you don’t know. “He shoulda thrown at the bag, but he threw to the right so the 3rd baseman couldn’t turn it. But at the same time, he philosophizes about the meaning of it all at the same time. “Each infielder has their own flow. Second baseman can take it slow and smooth, but short stop has a totally different rhythm.And aside from that, he’s been one of my best friends for nearly 20 years. We’ve been to and watched dozens of games together – lots of them with Rivera involved. We had a great time catching up watching a pretty lousy game.

The Yanks played flat-footed and were losing 4-0 by the 8th inning. The crowd wasn’t into it either – they were there for Rivera nothing more. It was the 8th inning and the manager finally called to the bullpen. For the last time “Enter Sandman” began to blare over the speakers.

To be honest – it was a little bit of a letdown for me. Rivera coming in meant nothing to the game or the team. Without that amazing tension, it didn’t pack the punch I expected it to. I felt disappointed. This was supposed to be unforgettable.

Then came the 9th inning.

Rivera went in to pitch. First batter – groundout. Second batter – popout. Vintage Rivera. He was one out away…then something unexpected happened. Out of the dugout walked TWO people. Normally it’s the manager who comes out to remove a pitcher. This wasn’t the manager.

“It’s Jeter and Pettite!” Jack shouted.

Rivera has played for 19 years on the Yankees. He has saved 652 regular season games (#1 of all time), 42 post-season saves (#1 of all time), won 5 World Series (including a series MVP). And here came his longtime teammates, Andy Pettite and Derek Jeter, to take him out of his last game. From there things got VERY emotional.

Pettite took the ball and hugged Rivera. Mariano Rivera buried his face in Pettite’s shoulder and sobbed. In front of 50,291 fans, Rivera wept and held that hug for a solid 2 minutes. Dear God it was amazing.

After hugging Jeter and more crying, Rivera walked to the dugout and took his hat off to the crowd. Everyone (including me and Pete) was crying and cheering their heads off.

The game ended soon after. Jack hugged the crap out of me and kept saying thank you. Alex turned to me and announced that this was his favorite baseball game and that he had almost cried as well. Somber, tired, and worn out we made our way out the stadium with the rest of the somber, tired, and worn out crowd. Exit Sandman.

I leave you with this thought:

We were at a wedding this past weekend (blog to come soon). At breakfast we were talking baseball with some relatives. Shani’s uncle told Jack:

“I remember my father taking me to baseball games and I got to see Jackie Robinson.”

“Wow!” Jack shouted. Everyone at the table was blown away and jealous.

Don’t you think that when Jack and Alex are old men, being able to tell some kids at a wedding “I was at Mariano Rivera’s last Yankees game” will be pretty damn impressive? I do.

A Perfect Ending to the Season

OK…this has without question been the best baseball season of my life. It has included:

  • An amazing boys roadtrip to Pittsburgh and PNC park, complete with autographs and kids running the bases
  • A Phillies game with my father-in-law and the boys
  • Our minor league baseball writing project, which took us to 4 minor league games, complete with park tours, player interviews, getting foul balls, autographs, and an Elvis immitator
  • The boys and their grandparents going to a KC Royal game where they were unexpectedly upgraded to “owners club” seats directly behind home plate, complete with free food
  • On work trips, I managed to hit games in Baltimore, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

You can’t ask for better than that, right? Well, I just got awarded a writing job that will bring in some unexpected income. (Not to mention it’s for an amazing cause.) As soon as I was awarded the job…

I bought tickets to the final home Yankees game of the season. We will be there to witness Mariano Rivera’s final game. This is nothing short of baseball history, and the Nuckols crew (including Shani, my good pal Pete, and his fiance Holly) will be present.

Holy crap.

2 Betrayals at Camden Yards

It began with a perfectly-timed work trip. I had to be in Bethesda for a 7AM meeting on Tuesday. That meant I had to spend Monday night there. Not only were the Orioles home, but they were playing the Yankees. Perfect, right? Not exactly…

Betrayal #1: Jack

For years Camden Yards has been high on our list. We both know this is a gem of a park, and neither of us had been. Jack was thoroughly upset when I told him I might be going.

“Can I go?”

“I’ve got all day meetings the next day – I’ve got nowhere to put you.”

“Pleeeease. Take me with you.”

I knew he would react this way and he was well within his rights. Our first time to Camden Yards should be together. He’s my real baseball partner. It was betrayal.

“I’ll scout it out, Jack. So when we go together I’ll know just what to do.”

“Why can’t I come now?”

But the fact is…I got over it. Monday at 3:00, 2 work colleagues and I hopped in the car and headed south. Then plan was get to the hotel around 6:00 and then shoot to the park for first pitch at 7:00. But traffic did not cooperate. An 18-wheeler had crashed on the bridge into Delaware and we literally spent 90 minutes going 2 miles. I watched the arrival time on the GPS creep further and further until it was crystal clear I was not making this ballgame. At 7:45 we reached the hotel.

“You still wanna go?” I mumbled to my friend/coworker/ride, Pete.

“Hell yeah,” he replied as if it was a stupid question.

Betrayal #2: Pete

Many readers may read this story and assume that I’m referring to my long-time pal and baseball friend, Pete Dimas. Pete and I frequently go to games together. However…this was not Pete Dimas. This was Pete from work. I was cheating.

But once again…I got over it. In a flash Pete and I were back on 495 shooting for the ballpark. We got there, found the closest parking garage, found a space just waiting for us, hit up scalpers for cheap tickets and BAM…Camden Yards.

Remedial baseball note: Camden Yards is holy in the baseball world. This is the park that began the wave of new parks being built in the last 20 years. Its construction is considered one of the 10 most important events in baseball history. Being there was a big deal.

We were starving from the long delay in traffic and we hit the jackpot with giant beef BBQ sandwiches and tall, icy cans of Miller Lite. Food in hand we slipped into the right field bleachers.

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It was the 5th inning and the Yanks were up 2 – 0. The bleachers were full of rowdy, joyful O’s fans. Great scene for a game. In short order the O’s put 2 runs on the board and the crowd was going crazy cheering and screaming. Meanwhile, Pete was in the middle of a 10 minute coughing fit. Pete had put way too much horseradish on his roast beef and it was killing him – but at the same time he was starving. Pete was choking, wheezing, crying…and still stuffing the sandwich into his mouth like he was stuffing gauze pads into a chest wound.

By the end of the 7th inning, we were ready for another beer and we wanted to see more of the stadium. I’d read that the best seats were on the 3rd base side. We headed out and made our way around. Beer in hand, we slipped down near third base. A bunch of old ladies were leaving their seats and we slipped into the vacant row. We watched the 7th and 8th inning from there. The O’s took the lead to make it 4-2 and the crowd chanted “CC Sucks! CC Sucks!” as Yanks starting pitcher CC Sabathia was removed for a reliever. I didn’t care for that one bit.

More seats opened up and we moved downward so we were in the 7th row behind the Yankees dugout. Unbelievable seats. That was where we spent the rest of the game – which turned out to be exciting.

In the 9th inning the Yankees tied it up with a home run, so the score was 4-4. Pete and I were going wild. Also of note for the inning was that an idiot in a Yankees shirt next to us got into an argument with a father and his two little girls. The idiot was removed (thankfully). Pete and I turned to the crowd and apologized to everyone on behalf of Yankees fans.

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The game went into the 10th inning and on a pair of doubles, the Yankees took a 6-4 lead.  The Orioles had one last inning to try and come back to win.

Enter Sandman.

Remedial baseball note: The Sandman is Mariano Rivera. For the past 20 years he has been the Yankees closer and is unquestionably the greatest closer in baseball history…hang on

Super-remedial baseball note: Definition of a “closer.” When your baseball team is ahead, and the other team has one inning left to try and score, you bring in your closer. This is a pitcher who specializes in shutting down the other team for the final inning. This is a high-pressure job and extremely important to a team’s success.

Back to remedial baseball note: Mariano Rivera is the most respected athlete in baseball both for being unbelievably good at closing games (he holds every record in the book) and for behaving with absolute class. For example, Rivera is retiring after this year and in each visiting ballpark he is meeting with the ballpark staff to thank them for their support over the years. As far as pitchers go, Rivera throws only one pitch – a cutter. It comes whizzing at the batter, and then at the last second the ball spins sideways a foot. Batters swing, expecting it to hit the middle of the plate, and suddenly find the ball is at their hands. It is incredible to watch. Batters facing Rivera break their bats all the time because it hits the thin part of the bat. In fact, over his career Rivera averages a broken bat per inning. He is nicknamed “the Sandman” because when he comes into the game they play “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. It is time to put the other team to bed. Being in Yankee stadium when this song comes on is about the greatest thing in all of sports.

In Camden Yards, they don’t play “Enter Sandman.” But fans near you makes faces like this:

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“It’s over,” sighed the guy behind me.

“As much as I hate the Yankees,” said another guy, “I love Rivera.” Mind you, he said this as his team was about to be defeated by the man he was complimenting.

I’d never been this close to Rivera and it was amazing to watch. He seemed so small and thin. And he’s so calm. Each pitch he takes the ball and looks at it in his hand like a man choosing peaches in the grocery store. Then he crouches like he’s about to begin a dance routine. Then he throws.

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First batter: Ground out to first. When he hit the ball, it didn’t make the normal WHACK of a bat hitting a ball. Instead there was a high-pitched CRICK as his bat cracked in half.

Second batter: Pop out.

Third batter: Strike out. Game over. Time for the Orioles to go to bed.

Pete and I shook hands with the Orioles fans around us. We had all had a great time. They have reason for optimism, their team is good and getting better.

To avoid traffic we walked a block to the Camden Pub. We sat at the bar and ordered a pair of Loose Cannon IPAs and some wings. We talked over the game, glowing in that deep satisfaction from going through a live baseball game together. It’s almost a feeling of accomplishment.

From there we got the car, hit no traffic getting back to the highway, and drove to the hotel listening to the recap of the game on the radio. Betrayal over. Yankees win.

Stay tuned, readers, 2 more posts will be coming from this trip. I’ve got a more in-depth review of Camden Yards and an expose on the idiot who was thrown out of the park. Both should be fun.