Last Sunday the Yankees honored Mariano Rivera — by any measure the greatest closer in baseball history — with a majestic ceremony befitting a player who showed class both on and off the field. Chants echoed throughout the Stadium. Fans said goodbye and gave Mo several standing ovations. Perhaps Thursday night’s final home appearance for Rivera might feel anticlimactic. The team had been eliminated from postseason contention for the first time since 2008 and looked like it was simply playing out the string, hoping for this disappointing season to come to a merciful end. And for the first eight innings of a disappointing 4-0 loss to the Rays, this was the case. But then everything changed when Mariano entered the game in the top of the 8th inning for the last time at Yankee Stadium.
The Yankees used the recording of the late longtime stadium public address announcer Bob Sheppard to introduce Rivera. Chants of “MA-RI-A-NO” echoed throughout the Stadium as “Enter Sandman” by Metallica blasted one last time over the PA system. Every one of the more than 48,000 fans in attendance stood and applauded. Mariano took the mound, took the ball and did what he has done for 19 years — he threw strikes and got outs, retiring the next two Rays he faced with two runners on and two runs already in. He walked off the mound to another thunderous ovation. It was the most energy and emotion I’d experienced at the Stadium all season.
Would Rivera come out to pitch the top of the 9th? We wondered aloud. Would Girardi give Rivera’s adoring fans one more chance to shower him with applause and chants and cheers? Of course he did. Rivera trotted back out to the mound and got to work, retiring Jose Lobaton on a comebacker and Yunel Escobar on a pop fly. Vintage Rivera. Was he going to finish out the 9th and walk off the mound one more time after another flawless appearance? I couldn’t help but notice that everything seemed to stop in that moment and not one but two people emerged from the Yankees dugout — and neither was Joe Girardi. “What is going on?” I asked my friend. Is that — is that Derek Jeter? Is that Andy Pettitte? Yes. Yes it was. The two longtime teammates and fellow members of the “Core Four” were coming out to the mound to make the pitching change.
I’ve been fortunate to witness some historic and memorable moments at Yankee Stadium (both old and new) over the years — from Scott Brosius’ game-tying home run in the bottom of the 9th of Game 5 of the 2001 World Series to Aaron Boone’s walk-off shot to win Game 7 the 2003 ALCS to Mariano Rivera’s 602nd career save. Each experience will always be one that I will remember forever. But Thursday night at Yankee Stadium, I witnessed another extraordinary moment worthy of the man at the center of it.
When Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter joined Rivera on the mound, what ensued was absolutely perfect. Pettitte took the ball from Mo and wrapped him in an embrace befitting two players who had been teammates for 16 years. Jeter looked on, applauding and smiling, waiting for his turn. The Captain then wrapped Mo in a heartfelt hug and it looked like Mariano was crying into his shoulder. The crowd’s ovation continued to swell throughout the Stadium. I’ve never seen or experienced anything like this. Even the Rays stood on the field in front of the dugout, applauding. In that minute, everything seemed right. It didn’t feel forced or rehearsed. It was exactly as it should be.
With Rivera appearing in his final game at Yankee Stadium after a career in which he established himself as the standard against which all relief pitchers will forever be measured, I expected emotions to run high at the Stadium. I knew it would be the last time I’d see Rivera pitch at Yankee Stadium; the last time I’d hear Enter Sandman; the last time I’d see Mariano in pinstripes. But I could not have expected this. Nobody could.
After the game ended and the Rays had concluded their three-game sweep en route to the postseason, most of the fans stayed for the on field post-game interview with Mariano. Cameras gathered on the field, awaiting Rivera’s emergence from the dugout. When he finally appeared, he did not stop to talk to the throngs of reporters. Instead, as Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York echoed throughout the Stadium, Rivera walked out to the pitching mound one last time, stood on the rubber, knelt down and collected a fistful of dirt. It was a poignant moment, perfect and simple and heartfelt. He then stood up, walked off the mound, saluted the crowd one more time, tipped his cap and headed into the media frenzy where he handled himself with grace and dignity as he had for the entirety of his 19-year career.
It was flawless. It was perfectly Mariano.