7:55 PM EDT, September 16, 2013
This column is a high-five to Boston Red Sox fans and their baseball organization. It is also a wrinkled brow and shake of the head to the same groups of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Sunday night, before the last regular-season game at Fenway Park between the Red Sox and the Yankees this year, the Red Sox and their fans honored Mariano Rivera, the best relief pitcher of all time, who will retire after this season.
The Red Sox organization gave him gifts. Red Sox players who had tried and mostly failed for years to hit his pitches in late-inning situations — always crucial ones — shook his hand, gave him hugs and even teared up a little.
It was done with a sense of humor. Rivera had blown a save against the Red Sox in the 2004 American League Championship Series. While the ceremony took place, the video screen in Fenway chided him about that. Afterward, some critics said the Red Sox took that too far, but these days, there are critics of everything. Rivera seemed to enjoy the mini-roast and said later, "They deserved it."
Throughout, the ever-present packed house in Fenway — home to some of the most ardent, loyal-to-the-home-team and tough-to-please baseball fans ever created — stood and applauded. The verbal embrace was heartfelt and, apparently, unanimous. On this night, for this moment, the boo birds had flown away.
We must be clear here, for those who don't follow baseball closely. There is no bigger rivalry in the game than the Yankees and Red Sox. If the Dodgers and Giants got good again, at the same time, maybe they'd challenge that.
But for now, Yankees versus Red Sox is baseball's Hatfields and McCoys.
Rivera is a Yankee, the proud No. 42, who has emerged so many times over the years from the bullpen in Fenway, saved so many games for the Yankees and ruined so many nights for the Red Sox and their fans.
And now, these same players and fans were paying homage to his greatness and legend. They applauded not an enemy, but a competitor, one whose successes warranted it. These were Red Sox fans, rising above provinciality, to honor greatness in a sport they loved.
It was almost exactly two years ago that the Angels had a chance to do something similar and bobbled the ball.
Derek Jeter, another legendary Yankee and, like Rivera, a good citizen, was coming to town for a game. The significance of his appearance was not lost on the Angels' public relations staff.
A month before, Jeter had collected his 3,000th hit, more than any Yankee. More than Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio or Mantle. The story was one of those magical moments in baseball history. The singles-hitting shortstop had gotten to No. 3,000 with a home run on a 3-and-2 pitch, and his fifth hit of a five-hit night was the game-winner.
This typist had also anticipated Jeter's upcoming appearance at the Big A, and in writing about his 3,000th hit, mentioned that the Angels would have a chance to publicly congratulate him. Tim Mead, Angels vice president of communications and a veteran at such things, responded when asked, and was quoted as saying, "It is fair to say we want to honor the man, the player and the person, in some form."
Neither Mead, nor this typist, expected what happened next.
Emails, calls, etc., poured in to both from Angels fans, angry that their team would lower itself to honor the enemy. The Angels were hit with a fairly heavy dose.
It became clear that an element of their fan base saw opponents as enemies and games as war. It was a sort of sad commentary on the inexplicable state of anger in which so many sports fans live these days.
Eventually, the Angels caved. Instead of something public in a pregame ceremony, they gathered Jeter in a room somewhere in the bowels of the stadium and presented him with a specially commissioned painting from a Laguna Beach artist. Doing the honors were the two most appropriate Angels, Manager Mike Scioscia and outfielder Torii Hunter.
The whole thing lasted probably five minutes. It made the game notes, maybe was used by some papers and websites, and probably ended with Jeter being grateful and feeling honored.
The 40,000-plus in the stands that night never got a glimpse, never knew, never had a chance to express themselves.
At the time, this typist wrote that the Angels had made a nice save. He was wrong. A group of cranky fans, hopefully a minority, had squeaked their wheels and the Angels had given them the grease.
That's why watching the ceremony on television Sunday night was kind of bittersweet.
Too bad we had to look 2,600 miles to the east to see it done right.
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