The Mariano, Once More Around the Park

The game meant nothing to the Yankees otherwise. They staggered out of the postseason picture one day earlier. These mostly old and mostly battered Yankees had nothing but will to get them far enough that they held onto postseason hopes by a frayed thread at best. Behind 4-0 to the Rays Thursday night in Yankee Stadium, a deficit that would hold up, there was only one reason for manager Joe Girardi to bring in his closer at all, never mind in the top of the eight.

He and his Yankees simply couldn't play their final home game of 2013 without allowing The Mariano to take one more curtain call doing what he's done so damn near-perfect for 19 major league seasons, every last one of them in the 'Stripes. If they had, there would have been riots in the Stadium and probably around two thirds of the Bronx, not to mention considerable portions of New York's other five boroughs.

Rivera himself admitted to being ambivalent about a Thursday night appearance after the sandmen from Tampa Bay put their postseason hope to sleep. He'd be there for the fans, but in his heart of hearts he really didn't like pitching when the game was meaningless. Until, of course, he got the call, in the eighth inning, when Dellis Betances looked as though he wouldn't get out of first and second, one out alive.

Every last drop of ambivalence drained from Rivera faster than the Yankee Stadium public address people could cue up the late Bob Sheppard's pre-recorded announcement of the man and Metallica's "Enter Sandman." Up the bullpen steps he skipped as soon as Girardi made the signal from the mound. The roar from the crowd probably began the moment The Mariano stepped off the bullpen rubber and strode toward the steps.

And even the Rays stood at the top of their dugout steps applauding as Rivera jogged in in his customary fashion, carrying his glove in his right hand, his head bowed ever so slightly, as though he couldn't bear to risk the change of a spike being tangled in the grass before he arrived at his office.

The man of the hour turned in something close to his vintage. He got Delmon Young to fly out to left on the first pitch, but he jerked himself out of a 3-1 hole with a called strike on Sam Fuld by getting Fuld to ground out right back to the box to end the eighth. He wrestled Jose Lobaton to 2-2 before Lobaton, too, bounced back to the box. Then, on ball one, Yunel Escobar popped out so high to Robinson Cano at second base it looked like it could have climbed an elevator shaft without touching any of the four shaft walls.

And as Cano grinned before starting the around-the-horn routine, fellow retiree-in-waiting Andy Pettitte and battered captain Derek Jeter both strode out toward the mound. Pettitte tapped his right forearm, the signal for a pitching change. Having cleared this move with the umpires earlier, Girardi wasn't about to let Rivera spend his final night in Yankee Stadium as the last man standing for a loss the Empire Emeritus‘s broke, busted, disgusted offense had little if any prayer of overthrowing.

Pettitte and Jeter reached the mound. It looked as though Jeter told Rivera, quietly but with an appreciative smile, "it's time to come out." And then The Mariano — this composed man who has never shown up another player, almost never let his emotions pour out so long as he was on or near the mound — fell into Pettitte's arms in tears.

The two pitchers stayed in that embrace for a couple of full minutes, Rivera's face buried in the hollow of Pettitte's shoulder, until Pettitte relinquished him for Jeter. The final three of the Core Four (Jorge Posada retired after the 2011 season, of course) looked at each other, and their smiles were smiles of sadness as much as appreciation. Something special was coming to an end in the south Bronx and they knew it. Something more than the World Series rings or the pennant races or even Rivera's stupefying postseason record. (His cumulative postseason stat line would be a regular season career year for any other relief pitcher.)

"I don't know how I got those last few guys out. I don't know what I was doing," The Mariano told reporters when the game ended. "Everything started hitting — all the flashbacks, everything that led to this moment ... I was just bombarded with emotions. I knew this was the last time [at Yankee Stadium]. Period."

Which was why, when most of the tumult had dissipated, he walked back out to the Stadium mound and scooped up a portion of its dirt for a keepsake.

"We've all grown up together," said Jeter, who came up the Yankee farm system with Rivera and Pettitte. "It's too bad that good things have to come to an end."

Matt Daley, a former Colorado Rockies reliever, who missed all of 2012 recuperating from rotator cuff surgery after the Yankees signed him to a minor league deal, can tell his grandchildren he got to relieve The Mariano on his final night's work in the south Bronx. And, to do it in fine style, pounding Ben Zobrist out for the side with a delicious, three-pitch, swinging strikeout.

Rivera might have retired in 2012 but for the torn ACL while shagging flies during practice that took him out for the season after he'd nailed five saves in April. "Put it down. Write it down in big letters. I'm not going down like this." Like Ted Williams way before him, signing up for one more tour after a lesser season by his lights, The Mariano intended to go out like a champion. And he will, though if you ask him he'd tell you going out like a champion means a trip to the postseason at least and a World Series ring at most. He's had a typical enough season on the mound, what with his 1.07 WHIP, his 2.15 ERA, and his 44 saves to date.

Off the mound, and it was his own idea entirely, he's traveled around the circuits making a point of meeting and greeting and thanking the people you never stop to think of first who produce baseball games — the stadium personnel, clubhouse workers — plus fans in each city, where they happened to apply, who were touched by illness, hardship, or tragedy. That's another and perhaps more precious way to go out like a champion.

He never once referred to himself making the game so special for nineteen years. He doesn't think that way. To him, going to the mound, slicing the opposition into quarters to save it for his mates, was his passion but also his job, and he typified the consummate professional without being ostentatious or obnoxious about it.

Like Sandy Koufax several generations earlier, he personified greatness without any sense of entitlement. An assassin on the mound and a gentleman everywhere else. Rivera thought nothing of offering helping hands or counsel to any pitcher who sought it, whether showing them the grip for his fabled cutter or showing them how to shake off the bad outings, to remember that the most important game in your baseball life was the next one you were going to pitch.

"I wish more people could talk to Mariano," Philadelphia pitcher Roy Halladay has said, "because he's probably one of the best things to ever happen to baseball."

Three decades after the fact, Bob Hendley, who got thatclose to throwing a no-hitter on the backside of Koufax's 1965 perfect game, received a package, a 1965 National League baseball inscribed "What a game!" and a handwritten note: "We had a moment, a night, a career. I hope life has been kind to you. Sandy." Prompting Hendley to reply, whenever he's asked about that game or the man to whom he fell, "It's no disgrace to get beat by class."

Three decades and more from now, those whose defeats were secured by the becalmed Panamania with the youthful eyes, the almost neon smile, the elegant delivery, and the unobstreperous manner before, during, and after yet another save, another title, will remember their humblings at The Mariano's hands. And they'll tell anyone asking likewise, no matter how anyone feels about the Yankees qua the Yankees, that it was no disgrace to get beat by class.

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