NEW YORK - Mariano Rivera was so overcome by emotion when the New York Yankees defeated the Boston Red Sox in Game 7 of last year's American League Championship Series, he ran from the dugout to the mound and collapsed.
Aaron Boone had just hit his 11th-inning home run, and the rest of Yankee Stadium was pandemonium, but Rivera spent those moments alone in prayer on the same spot where he had just pitched three brilliant innings.
The emotion the normally stoic Rivera expressed that night showed how deeply the feelings run in this epic rivalry, which resumes tonight right where everyone expected it to resume, in Game 1 of another ALCS.
But this time, the backdrop is different.
Forget all the fighting and the name-calling between the players and their rabid fans. Once again, the Yankees will be playing a postseason game with heavy hearts.
After finishing off the Minnesota Twins in the AL Division Series on Saturday, Rivera went to the clubhouse expecting another celebration and received tragic news. His wife, Clara, told him her 35-year-old cousin, Victor Dario Avila, and Avila's 14-year-old son were electrocuted while cleaning the pool at the pitcher's home in Panama.
Rivera flew to Panama on Sunday, and he is expected to return after today's funeral. "I am going back to New York tomorrow, after the funeral, and rejoin the team," Rivera told the Associated Press yesterday outside his home in Puerto Caimito, the fishing village where the accident occurred.
"At this moment, my family is my priority," he said. "I stopped thinking about baseball the moment I got on the plane."
The Yankees arranged a private plane for Rivera, and there was a strong sense he'd be ready to pitch if needed, especially because his postseason innings usually don't come until close to midnight.
But even if Rivera is in pinstripes, the Yankees can't be sure how mentally prepared he'll be to pitch. Former Oriole Mike Mussina, who will start Game 1 opposite Boston's Curt Schilling, suffered a family death (his father-in-law) on March 1, and he said the emotions affected him into the season.
"It's going to be difficult [for Rivera]," Mussina said. "I mean, your focus is not 100 percent here; it just can't be. And can he go out there and perform at the level that we hope he can? I don't think any of us can really know."
Rivera's dominating presence and unflappable poise have been as vital to New York's success as anything over the past eight years.
Unlike so many closers of his generation, Rivera never seems to go through the mood swings of the job. Others pump their fists or jump for joy after recording a big out or slam their gloves in frustration in defeat. Rivera is all business, and that's why the outpouring of emotion he showed after last year's Game 7 was so profound.
"I had a big conversation with the Lord," Rivera told The New York Times after that night. "He came through."
Torre said he would want to speak with Rivera to find out how he feels before inserting him into tonight's game. Flying five hours after a funeral is one thing. Being ready to pitch on this stage against this Boston team is another.
"He's as good as anybody that I've seen that's been able to shut things out," Torre said. "But this thing happened so sudden and so recent that I don't think there's any guarantees."
Rivera will be walking back into a clubhouse that has experienced its share of grief, despite all the winning in the Torre years. The manager's brother, Frank Torre, underwent successful heart transplant surgery during the 1996 World Series.
In 1998, during the first round of the playoffs, the Yankees learned Darryl Strawberry had cancer and still rolled to another championship.
Luis Sojo and Paul O'Neill lost their fathers during the 1999 World Series. The Yankees played Game 1 that time short one player, while Sojo attended the services, and O'Neill, who learned of his father's death after Game 3, played the next night.
The fathers of other Yankees, including Scott Brosius and Bernie Williams, have died during a season.
"We've gone down the road with this as other people have on different teams," Torre said. "And we've been ... pretty tough, I guess, in situations like this."
The challenge this time will be overcoming a Boston team that Las Vegas oddsmakers have listed as sizable favorites.
New York won its seventh consecutive AL East title this year, forcing the Red Sox to advance with the wild card, but Boston won the season series between the teams, 11-8.
The Yankees no longer have Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte or David Wells, so they are leaning on Mussina to be their ace. And the Red Sox will counter with Schilling, who pitched games 1, 4 and 7 of the 2001 World Series against the Yankees for the victorious Arizona Diamondbacks, posting a 1.69 ERA.