Last season Tom Verducci worked as an umpire during a spring training game and wrote about the experience for Sports Illustrated. The bit I remember most about the article was how fast the game is on the field, how quickly things move for everyone involved, the umpires, players, the fans in the front row when a foul ball comes their way. But for some players, for the best players, the action slows down and they are, momentarily, able to master time.
Two nights ago, a dapper little man named Emilio Navarro, the oldest living ballplayer, threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. Navarro, 102 years old, was the first Puerto Rican to play in the Negro Leagues. He was escorted to the mound by Pudge Rodriguez and Jorge Posada. When they reached the grass in front of the mound, Posada went to home plate to receive the throw.
Navarro took his time. A squirrel was standing on the first base side of the mound watching as Navarro gave it a little of the ol Ed Norton and he went into a full wind-up. As he released the ball (and delivered a good throw), the squirrel darted across the field behind him and disappeared from the camera's view. I'm sure Navarro, who was a second baseman in his playing days was quick like that back when. Then Navarro did a little jig and tipped his cap to the crowd before Rodriguez and Posada escorted him back off the field.
Navarro continued to move slowly, but not like a feeble or sick man, just one who knows exactly how fast he should be walking. He soaked in the moment and had no desire to rush anything. Navarro looked like a gnome compared with the two ballplayers next to him, and they looked like parents walking with an infant, you know, when adults have to constantly remind themselves that they are walking too fast for the kid. But Navarro was relaxed and comfortable and at 102, what's the rush?
I thought about Navarro's grace and ease last night in the ninth inning. With a man on first and two men out, Mariano Rivera fielded a soft ground ball on the third base side of the diamond. It was not going to roll foul. Rivera darted to the ball, picked it up and threw a bullet to first base. The runner would have been out and the ball game over, but the ball bounced off Cody Ransom's glove. The replay showed Rivera pick up the ball and firing it to first in one smooth motion. Then he stood, erect when a small, easy smile spread across his face, even before Ransom dropped the ball. When the ball got away, the smile grew ever so slightly before Rivera jostled himself back into reality and moved toward home plate.
We've seen this look from Rivera in the past, it is one of simple disbelief. But last night, it wasn't so incredulous, just a simple smile. Suddenly, the Yankees one-run lead was in jeopardy. Runners on the corners and two out. But Brian Roberts popped up the first pitch he saw, a cutter in on his hands. The ball was not high and inbetween Rivera and Rodriguez. For a brief moment there was some confusion as to who was going to catch it. But Rodriguz caught the ball for the third out and that simple smile returned to Rivera's face as he shook hands with Rodriguez who was now smiling too as the Yankees beat the Orioles 3-2.