I remember my first Yankees game like it was yesterday. I remember my ice cream in a helmet my Dad bought me. I remember him telling me Bernie Williams was our cousin because we shared the same last name. I remember feeling like baseball was important because my Dad pointed out a connection with it. It mattered to him. So it mattered to me. At all of five years old.
I would go on to perpetuate the lie I believed until I was about 11 when a 7th grade boy broke my heart by telling me I couldn’t be related to Bernie Williams because Bernie Williams was Puerto Rican. I’m Irish. I went home from school crying. I didn’t talk to my Dad for two weeks. Didn’t watch baseball for two months. It was our first big breakup.
The stuff of legends over the following few years brought me back to my love. An unconditional love that was made far easier by a team that seemingly had a destiny to just win. As I grew older, my relationship with my Dad deteriorated horribly. By the time I was 16, and he was months from death, we had nothing in common. We spoke very little. I began to realize he was a terrible father.
But I still remember the last conversation I had with him before he went to the hospital and died during open heart surgery. It was about the 2002 All Star game. And Jorge Posada. And Jeter. We sat on our couch in the den – our family room – and he was reading the paper and we discussed it like we loved each other like normal families do. It was the last good conversation I ever had with my Dad.
A year later, as I sat with my sister in the 200s section watching Mike Mussina stop the bleeding. Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams – my long lost Puerto Rican cousin – tied a game that seemed all but lost to the Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. Mariano Rivera thew 48 pitches and stranded two on second base to hold the tie into the 11th inning, I realized I loved this team more than I loved certain members of my extended family. And when Aaron Boone hit that homerun off of Tim Wakefield.
My wedding day won’t be as great as that game.
My entire childhood is wrapped up in baseball. And the love of the game that grew from a five-year-old’s belief that she was related to an obscure-at-the-time outfielder into a love for the men who play it. It shaped my life in ways other things can't. It shaped who I am. And it shaped what few memories I have without bitterness about my father.
My team slowly morphed. Losing Mike Mussina for me was a big blow in 2008. Let’s not talk about Bernie Williams retiring. I cried hysterically when Jorge Posada threw out the first pitch at the opening game in 2012. I openly wept at work watching Andy Pettite realize his career was over for real this time in the Yankees dugout. But the iconic image of Derek Jeter and Andy Pettite coming out to pull Mariano Rivera is one that is scorched into my memory. One I feel both blessed and cursed to have had to witness.
Mariano Rivera has been part of my baseball life for almost two decades. Watching him exit into the dugout, I was so happy knowing as a baseball fan I got to not only witness but genuinely cheer for a member of my team who through every year changed the face and attitude of the game. His humility and focus outweighed his fives rings. He didn’t change the game by winning – he changed the game by playing.
I have hung out with a lot of high profile players. Dated some, loved some, seen a lot naked, and am close with a few. But last Friday -- thanks to a good friend of mine who plays for the San Francisco Giants -- I was lucky enough to not only see Mariano pitch in person one last time, but to walk onto the field for batting practice and look around. It was a reminder to myself that no matter how old I get or how many players I date or how the mystique wears off with every new baseball hookup or relationship, there is a part of me that is felt like a five-year-old fan-girl who walked out onto that field and felt goosebumps. I was awe-struck by the ability of a place that held so many of my best childhood memories to still invoke a feeling of wonder even at 27. That is what baseball is. And that is the type of baseball a player like Mariano Rivera created.
I cried my eyes out as Andy Pettitte hugged Rivera on that mound. And as he walked off the field, much like at any memorial, you try not to focus on the loss but on the exceptional life someone lived. I tried to focus on every good game Mariano has ever been a part of in my life. The joys he gave me, the losses I cried for. And all I could realize was the loss I was feeling – as dumb as it may be – was the feeling I got when I walked into my house for the first time after my Dad passed away on that operating table when I was 16. I knew my life would go on. I knew good things would continue to happen through the pain. And new things would fill the hole.
But much like with the death of my dad, and walking into my house, I know with the loss of Mariano Rivera to baseball, things will never be the same. The comfort and reliability of those things that formed the safety net of the familiar childhood you knew, they’re gone. And my baseball life moving forward… It will never the same. The last 22 years of the love I have for that team will be far different than the next 22. And after having watched so many of the players who formed so much of my childhood exit the game, I know now after this one, I will never love the Yankees in the same way I did at 13. Because at 13, they were mine. They were the ones who taught me the game. Made me love the game. And for however many legends come after Mariano, my love of the game is already shaped. I will always the love Yankees, but it will never be the same.
It isn’t just the Yankees or their fans losing an icon. It’s baseball. Legends and heroes are made every day in that game. And somewhere down the line, a player like Mariano will emerge and carve out his own legacy to change the game. But the years of loyalty, respect, and trust I put in Mo to ease my worries during playoffs, to bring me joy in a good game after a shitty day, and to know whoever we faced, we always had Mo -- I don’t think I will ever have it in me to love a player the way I loved him. I will always love the Yankees. But there will never be a player able to shape that love the way Mariano (...and Bernie, and Paul and Jeter and Jorge) did. My baseball profile, it’s set. And it’s because of Mo and the teams I grew up cherishing.
Things change. Baseball grows. Players age. And with each game this year, I knew it was coming. But it didn’t make watching a man who changed my life and probably the lives of so many others realize his career –the stuff of legends – was over any easier to watch.
That is my team. Those are my boys. They are my memories. And not a day will go by in the next 20, 30, 40 years I wear my Williams t-shirt to games that I will not thank the baseball gods for giving me the opportunity to witness something so rare and so game changing.
You don’t have to love the Yankees to realize that one of the most interesting and fun to watch parts of the game is gone. It takes a geuine love of baseball to realize that despite team allegiances, certain players shape all teams. Mariano Rivera was one of those players. And I will be forever grateful that my love of baseball was shaped in large part by a man who shaped the game himself.
Mariano Rivera, I will miss you so very much. Thank you for all the moments you gave me that made me proud to be a New Yorker and proud to be a Yankee. And above all, thank you for giving me a few simple memories of my father that are worth remembering.
Follow Stefanie Williams on Twitter here.
Mariano Rivera via Shutterstock