Mariano Rivera Was MLB's Perfect Ambassador for Jackie Robinson's No. 42
The release of "42" in movie theaters across the world immortalized Jackie Robinson's plight from Negro Leagues star to Brooklyn Dodgers standout on the big screen for the world to remember.
Meanwhile, there has been an ambassador to Robinson's No. 42 throne patrolling the mound during the eighth and ninth innings of baseball games for nearly two decades, carrying on the torch of the number—but more importantly—carrying himself and representing the game in a way that would have made the original "42" proud.
Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, now 43 years old and in his last major league season, was grandfathered into wearing No. 42 when baseball chose to retire the number across the sport in 1997. That date, of course, signified the 50th Anniversary of Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier and smashing down the walls of racism in America's pastime.
It would have been foolish to think that Rivera or any of the other players wearing No. 42 in 1997, including Mo Vaughn, would still be donning the uniform 16 years later. Careers are too short, players switch organizations on a yearly basis and no team would ever again issue the number.
Yet, as Jackie Robinson Day takes center stage across the sport, Rivera is still representing the number and the man.
Robinson's widow, Rachel, spoke to the New York Daily News about the man Rivera is and how proud she is that he's been able to carry her husband's legacy on his back for all these years.
"Mariano has brought attention to (the number), and to Jackie's career as well. It's enhanced the interest in No. 42, and that is important for our youth," Rachel Robinson told the NY Daily News. "It's been such a thrill for me to see the stadiums full of players wearing Jack's number on April 15 (Jackie Robinson Day). The number has gained a lot in an emotional sense, and certainly Mariano has been a part of that."
While Jackie Robinson Day is a chance for a yearly remembrance and history lesson on an event that became a tipping point for civil rights in this country, it shouldn't just be remembered and talked about one day per season.
Due to the professionalism, durability and greatness of Rivera, it's more than that.
For baseball fans, "42" represents Robinson. When Rivera is on the mound for New York, it's impossible not to think about the number, what is represented and how lucky the game was to have it bestowed upon someone with Rivera's ability and values.
As the Rivera retirement tour commences this season, pay attention to how the great closer goes about it his business in each city the Yankees visit. Judging by his recent interaction with the staff of the Cleveland Indians, Rivera isn't making this retirement tour about him. As he departs the game that he's dominated, the sense of class and dignity shines through.
While it's easy for fans to agree that Rivera was the perfect choice to carry Robinson's legacy out, don't confuse that for a lack of responsibility on Rivera's part.
During an interview with ABC News, the Yankee closer expressed what it means to wear the number.
“It’s not only a privilege or a satisfaction,” Rivera said. “It’s a responsibility.”
Although Rivera isn't African-American, his upbringing in Panama and plight to reach superstar status in New York connects him to Robinson.
“As a minority, [to] come from Panama and be the last one to wear number 42, I think it’s a lot of pressure,” Rivera said. “I accept the challenge.”
Much like the challenge of closing postseason games with championships on the line, Rivera excelled at it.
Robinson didn't have to play in the 21st century, but considering the spotlight on him and the experiment by Branch Rickey, his every move was dissected. If there was retaliation for a racial slur, physical violence towards any player or fan or even an innocuous off the field incident, Robinson would have been on the front page of every newspaper. It's likely that his career would have been halted because of it.
Although the stakes aren't nearly as high, that kind of coverage and scrutiny follows every player in the 21st century, from Alex Rodriguez to the 25th man on the Mariners roster.
Despite the media coverage, playing in New York, and being part of a disliked, winning franchise for two decades, Rivera never has sought out the spotlight or accidentally stumbled upon it.
Regardless of the World Series and New York borough rivalry between the Yankees and Dodgers during Robinson's career, it's hard to imagine him bestowing his number on the back of any player other than Rivera.
Of all the memorable scenes in "42," the moment where Robinson receives his Brooklyn jersey, holds it tight and turns it around to reveal No. 42 is among the most powerful.
Through coincidence, fate or some combination of both, Rivera has given baseball fans the ability to feel that on a daily basis through his career.
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