Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Sandman at Saratoga: An Evening With Mariano Rivera

--Jessica Martini

   If you are a racing fan, there is no place better than Saratoga in the summer. If you happen to be a racing fan and a baseball fan, it was Christmas in August last week as Siro’s at The Lodge hosted an exclusive dinner with New York Yankees mega-star closer Mariano Rivera. The event was held to benefit the Mariano Rivera Foundation, founded in 1998 to provide educational opportunities to underprivileged children in both the U.S. and in Rivera’s native Panama.
   I had the extreme good fortune to attend the event, along with about 100 other Yankees fans, including former teen heart throb and current racehorse owner David Cassidy, Denali’s Craig Bandoroff, Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero and NYRA’s Dan Silver.
   Seated at a table that we self-dubbed “Table 42" in honor of the killer closer, I found myself in easy conversation with a group of people bound by a love of all things Yankees.
    Andy Belfiore, former TDNer and now Director of Communications for the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association--and the woman I blame for my Yankees addiction--was there, as was Ed Fountaine of the New York Post and Ginny Terrill, daughter of trainer Red Terrill, although she admitted her husband was more the baseball fan of the family. The Table 42 crew also included Chase, an attorney from Nashville who said he had always wanted to attend the races at Saratoga and an evening with Rivera was just the thing to entice him to head north. And Brooklyn was definitely in the house with Mark, a mortgage broker, and his girlfriend Carly.
   Over a spectacular meal, there was a wonderful mixture of racing talk and baseball talk, but as David Cassidy took over at the piano for a rendition of “Piano Man,” we had to get down to business. There would be a Q&A with the great closer and we had to be ready.
   Every closer needs a good set-up man, and on this night one future Hall of Famer introduced another as jockey Johnny Velazquez set the stage for Mariano. Velazquez, on the eve of his induction into Racing’s Hall of Fame, admitted he hadn’t written his induction speech yet (you obviously didn’t need the practice, Johnny!) as he took some questions from the crowd.
   Soon it was Rivera’s turn and the lanky right hander, still recuperating from a torn ACL, charmed the crowd while answering questions from around the room.
   Who taught him his signature cutter? “God.” Would he be back pitching this year? “I hope so, but you can’t push it.”
   Finally, it was our turn. Mark started off. “You are the most revered and respected closer in baseball history and you have suffered a serious injury,” he said, before pausing and admitting he had to hand this one over to our own closer. “Why is it so important, why do you want to come back and pitch again?” Andy finished. Mariano thought for a second, smiled and said, “Because I am competitive. I want to be out there.”
   After an auction of baseball and football memorabilia came the highlight of the evening for me--photos with Mariano. After all the post-season games Mo, Andy and I had played ... well, Mo played, Andy and I pretty much just yelled and high-fived a lot, it was appropriate the three of us finally had a close-up. And Andy didn’t even notice I snagged the pitching arm side!

Courtesy Tom Sullivan
   Heading for the parking lot, we saw we weren’t the only ones enchanted by the evening. As we waited for the car, we stood next to two middle-aged businessman who could only be described as giddy as two schoolgirls. I swear, one of them gushed, “He shook my hand.”
   And it was all for a good cause. The evening raised over $100,000 that will directly assist children in need.
   The next day, Rivera toured the Saratoga backstretch with Velazquez in the morning and attended the races in the afternoon, presenting the trophy after the day’s third race. Asked how he enjoyed the experience, Rivera said he had had a wonderful time in Saratoga (don’t we all?) before reportedly admitting he was petrified of the horses. Ah, well. No one is perfect.
   Thanks for a memorable night, Mo. Best of luck on the comeback trail--I am looking forward to hearing ‘Enter Sandman’ reverberating around the Stadium for another season.
   For more information on the Mariano Rivera Foundation, visit  

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