Howard Bryant wrote a recent column about the great relief pitcher for the New York Yankees, Mariano Rivera. Bryant began by noting how Rivera seemed to be different from other great athletes, in that Rivera had other things besides baseball that drove him, particularly his religion:
History tells us that the game and time are the two opponents that rarely lose; decline and defeat are the natural order of sports. But Rivera, beyond the human impulses of pride and vanity, would somehow be the one who'd win, because he was guided by something more powerful than desire. … Rivera has always held himself at a certain elevated remove from the game, from his contemporaries, the child of God at peace, understanding that baseball is merely a part of his life.
Rivera, playing in what might be his last season (he is 42 years old), was injured a few weeks ago, and is out for the season. He said he intends to return in 2013, and in that decision, Bryant saw “the disgust of a great competitor felled by random injury.” For Bryant, Rivera was revealing himself as “all competitive fury, all fire, all vanity, all of the components required to win”. In this, “he was shockingly mortal.”
Bryant’s piece is a positive one. He respects Rivera’s accomplishments on the field of play, and the way Rivera carries himself on and off the field. But one thing I got from the article is illuminated by that last line: Mariano Rivera was mortal. He was, in short, just like us.
I don’t think for a second that Bryant intended to bring Rivera down to our level with his comment. He was just adding another piece to the puzzle of this public man who has managed to go about his business in as anonymous a way as possible for a superstar athlete playing in New York.
But when I read Bryant’s column, I thought of one of my very favorite Bruce Springsteen songs, “Backstreets”. At the end of the song, Bruce sings
Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go to see,
Trying to learn how to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be
Well, after all this time to find we’re just like all the rest,
Stranded in the park, and forced to confess
To hiding on the backstreets
When Bryant writes about Rivera, he is talking about someone who operates from a different place than the rest of us, and finding some common ground between Rivera and our own hopes and fears. What makes Bruce Springsteen different, though … and I think this remains true, and is perhaps one reason he remains vital and relevant to his fans … is that Bruce doesn’t sing about someone who operates from a different place. Instead, he places himself on the backstreets with the rest of us. He and Terry are “just like all the rest”. His great revelation isn’t the one Bryant reveals that some famous athlete is, as the article’s title tells us, “only human”. Bruce’s revelation is that HE is human. There is a distance between the life of the writer and the life of the athlete in Bryant’s prose. But there is no such separation between Bruce and the audience. He is “just like all the rest”.
I am quite possibly making too much of this. But it has always struck me as remarkable that Bruce Springsteen could have everything he ever desired and more, and still seem like “one of us”. The secret lies in “Backstreets”.