NEW YORK _ You would think it would be easy for someone from Panama to root for New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.
Not so …
Marco Ocando, a proud Panamian, said there was more to it than just putting the feet up, waiting for the opposition to go down 1-2-3 in the ninth and watch everyone shake hands as The Great Rivera saved another game.
First, a Rivera fan had to decide where to watch the Yankees and wait for The Great Rivera, there were three categories:
For a regular season game Ocando would watch from his own house.
If Rivera was going for a milestone or if it was early in the post-season friends gathered at some one’s house in Panama City.
And finally, if it was the World Series loyalists of The Great Rivera would gather in a bar.
The Great Rivera saved 652 of 732 opportunities (89%) with nine seasons of 40-or more saves, and two of 50 or more.
But it was never easy ...
“If the Yankees led 3-1 going into the eighth and had men on base, one run was OK, but we didn’t want them to score. If it was 5-1 Mariano would not get the chance for a save,” Ocando said. “We all wanted the save opportunity to be in place.”
Rivera made 96 appearances in the post-season and 58 were of more than an inning. He saved 42 of 47 chances (89.4%).
If the save was in place it wasn’t automatic to cheer for The Great Rivera.
“If Mariano was facing a hitter from either Panama or Venezuela, we’d cheer for the guy to get a hit — but not score,” Ocando said. “Miguel Cabrera took him yard to win a couple of games a few years back.”
And when the final out came and the reserved Rivera would walk towards catcher Jorge Posada while everyone else was jumping around whether they Yankee fans in the Bronx, in Seattle, Miami or Tampa, what happened in Rivera’s home country.
“We’d jump for joy, high-five each other,” Ocando said. “When Mariano did well it was great for our country, a source of national pride. We don’t have that many players in the major leagues. It was a David vs. Goliath scenario.”
Except that hitters no matter their place of birth felt like they were the Davids in the batter’s box.
The Great Rivera was the Goliath in this equation.
Ocando was speaking at Yankee Stadium on Friday night before the New York Mets played the first game of the Subway Series. It would have been a night off for Rivera had he not retired. Mark Teixeira hit a pair of two run homers and Jacoby Ellsbury a solo shot in a 6-1 Yankees win over the hated Mets.
The reason Ocando had made the trip from Panama to New York for a noon press conference at the commissioner’s office on Park Ave. as Copa Airlines became the official airline of MLB in Latin America and Canada signing a two-deal deal. For the first time in 67 years another logo (MLB) was on the plane’s tail fin when it landed at JFK Friday morn. As well the logos of all 30 clubs, were on a Copa Boeing 737-800 Next Generation aircraft.
“As we continue to promote baseball around the world, good partners like Copa are an important way for Major League Baseball to reach fans in new and interesting ways,” said Tony Petitti, Chief Operating Officer.
And who other than the Great Rivera is partially responsible for Copa and MLB being be together. Last March the Miami Marlins and the Yankees visited Panama for a two-game pre-season series, “Serie de la Leyenda” (Legend Series).
Rivera was in his first year of retirement and the Yankees made the trip to his home country in his honor.
The Marlins beat the Yankees 5-0 after Rivera threw out the ceremonial first pitch, before 26,686 at Rod Carew Stadium — the largest crowd in decades — on Saturday night.
Copa hopes to develop local and regional advertising campaigns and receive significant branding in game telecasts for MLB major events including the 2015-16 all-star games, League Championship Series, and World Series. Copa plans to conduct sweepstakes for officially-licensed MLB product and trips to experience MLB games, as well as provide unique benefits for frequent fliers.
Copa, which offers connections to 73 destinations in 30 countries in North, Central and South America and the Caribbean, through Panama City, was also a World Baseball Classic partner in 2009 and 2013.
For the last two consecutive years, FlightStats has recognized Copa as “Best Airline in Latin America” for its on-time performance and quality of service.
The teams played again the next afternoon. Ocando walked out to the mound for Game 2 accompanied by boxing great Roberto Duran, No. 1 in Panama sporting circles and The Great Rivera, who asked to visit with long time employees on his final trip into each city on his 19th and final season in 2013,including meeting with a group of Jays front-office staff.
“I gave Duran a massage to loosen him up — maybe I made him too loose,” said Ocando, Copa marketing director, with a laugh, “his throw barely made it halfway to home plate.”
The Yankees won that day 7-0 in front of 22,022 fans.
“Duran is very accessible, you can see him walking down a street in Panama or at the grocery store, it would be like seeing Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard on the streets,” Ocando said. “No one says ‘oh my goodness — it’sRoberto Duran.’
“Mariano is very serene. He never seems to be fazed by anything. He always keeps his cool.”
Cool as five World Series rings.