Souhan: Rivera, one of baseball's greats, shows common touch

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 2, 2013 - 11:46 PM
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As he has on each stop of his retirement tour, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera met with behind-the-scenes personnel -- this time on Tuesday afternoon at Target Field. "They have given me far more than I have given them," baseball's all-time saves leader said.

Photo: JERRY HOLT, Star Tribune

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Blessed with extraordinary ability, Mariano Rivera is using his farewell tour to thank the ordinary folks who make baseball great.

Before he walked into a room filled with longtime Twins employees and fans waiting to meet him, Mariano Rivera paused and said: “It was important for me to meet the people who make baseball what it is, the people who work in the game every day. They have given me far more than I have given them.”

Rivera, the Yankees’ legendary closer, tried to balance the scales on Tuesday afternoon. Having announced he will retire at the end of this season, he continued his uniquely personal farewell tour at Target Field.

In each city, he meets with anywhere from one to 18 people connected to the local franchise. At Yankee Stadium, he said he visited the “cleaning lady in her workroom.” At Target Field, he met with 14 people chosen by the Twins in the owner’s suite. He shook hands, answered questions, posed for photos and created almost as many goose bumps during a half-hour conversation as he does when he jogs in from the Yankee Stadium bullpen.

Rivera pointed at longtime cook Phillip Wells and said, “I know what you do — the chef hat gave you away.” After Wells described his work as specializing in cheesy taters, coffee cake and the liberal use of butter, Rivera thanked him for his work and said, “This is the beautiful thing about it: all these different people united by the game we love.”

Rivera described the angst he felt when forced to pitch to nemesis Edgar Martinez, the Mariners slugger. He described growing up in a fishing village in Panama, where he had no baseball field. “The beach was my playground,” he said. He honed his skills “during low tide.”

“I don’t regret what we didn’t have,” he said. “That made me appreciate what I have now.”

He spoke of becoming a born-again Christian in his 20s, and of knowing he never could have been a successful starting pitcher, that switching to a relief role saved his career. He asked as many questions as he answered, at one point nodding to longtime usher Barb Barnes, saying with mock indignation, “Last night someone hit me in the head!”

Rivera asked Barnes how long she had been doing her job. The answer: 22 years. “I’ll protect you tonight,” she said.

Then Barnes, wearing Twins earrings and sneakers designed to look like baseballs, told her story, saying she moved to downtown Minneapolis after the deaths of two people close to her, that she knew nothing about baseball, but taking a job at the Metrodome became psychic salve. Now she works in social outreach, helping the needy, before heading to the ballpark. “Baseball has done so much for me,” she said. “And this is amazing, to be here, meeting him.”

Press box attendant Peg Imhoff, who has worked for the Twins for 38 years, told a similar story. “I appreciated him talking about his ministry, that God had a plan for him,” she said. “I sincerely believe that for myself. I never applied for this job, and here I am 38 years later, and it’s the steam behind the Twins that keeps me going. I’m very lucky. I was flattered as all get-out to be included in such a wonderful group of people. Think about the years of baseball that were in that room.”

Rivera has spent 19 seasons in the major leagues, earning a reputation as a reserved but classy personality. Before the season started, he talked with Yankees public relations director Jason Zillo about finding a way to celebrate baseball’s anonymous working class.

The invitees on Tuesday sat in high-backed chairs arranged in a semicircle around Rivera and Zillo. The crowd included Al Kuehner, who manages the grounds crew, and security officer Paula Thielen, baseball historian and official scorer Stew Thornley, team curator Clyde Doepner, guest-services supervisor Marlene Rosckes, organist Sue Nelson, Yankees fan and former Metrodome usher Gus Lanata, and … a Mets fan?

“I wish I could say I was upset to see you retire,” said Michael Atanasio, who grew up in Brooklyn.

“A guy in Tampa said the same thing,” Rivera said with a smile.

Zillo said that Rivera studies the list of guests the day before meeting them. Tuesday afternoon, Rivera handed autographed baseballs to each as he posed for individual photos, then rushed off to shag balls during batting practice. “I wish all of the players retiring from baseball would do this,” he said.

He took a break to answer questions in the dugout, noting that two of his Minnesota memories include getting hit in the leg by a Paul Molitor line drive, and his wife’s requests to visit the Mall of America.

Before the game, the Twins honored him with a video tribute, donated a check for $10,000 to his foundation, then gave him a gift that Twins manager Ron Gardenhire dreamed up: a rocking chair composed of Twins bats broken by Rivera.

It’s an homage to voluntary retirement built by involuntary retirements.

“We call this the ‘Chair of Broken Dreams,’  ” Gardenhire told him at home plate. “And you broke most of them.”

Rivera hugged Gardenhire, Justin Morneau and Glen Perkins, and left the field laughing.

“This has been more than what I expected,” Rivera said. “It has brought emotions that I did not expect. Wonderful people who are wonderful human beings, dedicated to their jobs and their organization. That’s why we are here.”

 

Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. jsouhan@startribune.com

 

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