God bless America ... and Mariano Rivera

2 fans from Darien get to meet Yankees closer Tuesday

White Sox second baseman Gordon Beckham on MLB suspensions.

Two old bed sheets. One simple message.

Almost 12 years later, the time that Joe and Gail Bosch of Darien spent making a banner to welcome the New York Yankees back to the field after the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001, will be repaid in a way beyond the satisfaction they could have expected from performing such a simple act of kindness.

Two of the biggest White Sox fans, the kind found when broken bats are auctioned off for charity or the ballpark is opened up for a game of catch in center field, the Bosches will spend time with Mariano Rivera on Tuesday afternoon at U.S. Cellular Field.

If there is a mention of the Biogenesis suspensions, Alex Rodriguez or the Yankees' desperate attempts to qualify for the playoffs for the 18th time in the last 19 seasons, it will be only in passing. They want to tell Rivera they remember seeing him warm up in the bullpen at the Yankees' complex in the spring of 1996, when the all-time saves leader served as a setup man for John Wetteland.

They were in South Florida to watch a nephew pitch in a youth tournament and went to Fort Lauderdale Stadium for a game.

"We were leaning against a chain-link fence by the bullpen, down the foul line, watching this kid warm up," Joe Bosch said. "I was standing right beside him. I watched him make some throws and then moved down by the catcher, 60 feet 6 inches away. I couldn't hardly see the ball when he threw it. All I heard was it hissing."

Rivera refined that fastball into a cut fastball that has allowed him to pile up 685 saves, including 42 in playoff games and 35 this season after returning from major knee surgery that ended his season last year in early May. He's 43 and figures to have only another 15 or so saves left in him before he retires.

Rivera has been clear since February that this will be his final season, and neither a 13th trip to the All-Star Game nor a 1.56 ERA has caused him to waffle on the decision to leave baseball to spend more time with his wife, Clara, who he has known since elementary school, and their three sons.

He's the kind of player baseball loves to honor with a farewell tour. Among other things, he was presented with boots and a 10-gallon hat in Texas and a lifetime pass to Starbucks in Seattle. But Rivera went to the Yankees' director of communications, Jason Zillo, and said he wanted to do something else.

They devised a plan for him to meet privately with different people from every city in which the Yankees play this season, almost always team employees or fans. Rivera makes an occasional special request, like John Adams, the man who sits atop the bleachers at Progressive Field in Cleveland banging on his bass drum, but otherwise Zillo coordinates with officials from other teams to put together a guest list.

The group at U.S. Cellular Field on Tuesday will include Jose Diaz, a longtime member of Roger Bossard's grounds crew who often grooms the mound; Roy Rivas, a chef in the Bard's Room who is among the team's longest-tenured employees; Bob Shepp, a press box attendant; Israel "DT'' del Toro, a fan from New Lenox who re-enlisted with the Air Force in 2010 after an IED explosion in Afghanistan burned more than 80 percent of his body in 2005, and the Bosches.

The banner they made for the Sept. 18, 2001 game — Orlando Hernandez vs. 22-year-old Mark Buehrle on the first full-slate day of games after the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon — received a lot of attention when they unfurled it in from the left-field bleachers.

It read: "Chicago (hearts) New York; God Bless America." It elicited comments from New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Joe Torre, who was manager of the Yankees' juggernaut, among others.

"Ten percent of life is what happens to you; 90 percent is how you react to it," Joe Bosch said. "When 9/11 happened, Gail and I couldn't jump into a car and go help the people. We could make a banner and let them know that people 1,500 miles away were thinking of them, wishing them the best. We could do that small thing."

Baseball plays an important role in the marriage between Joe, who has spent 36 years working in a variety of jobs at Jewel Foods, and Gail, who is a district manager for Dunkin' Donuts. They go to 15 or more games every year at U.S. Cellular Field and make trips all over the country to watch games, although Joe is almost as happy just listening on the radio.

Like a lot of people who aren't from New York, he became a closet Yankees fan watching the team built around Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Rivera. He says it has been a privilege to watch how Rivera has carried himself in a big league career that was still getting started when he watched him prepare for that outing in Fort Lauderdale.

"I don't know how you spell Mariano's name, but I spell it C-L-A-S-S," Joe Bosch said. "He's right there with the great players of my time watching, the Cal Ripkens and Don Mattinglys. We hear too much about some players, the guys who are all about themselves and looking to cut corners, and not enough about a guy like Mariano Rivera. He never disgraced his uniform."

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