In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably begin with a confession: I’ve hated the Yankees for almost as long as I’ve been a baseball fan. I grew up a Braves fan in New York City (don’t ask), watching the Yankees win championship after championship — with two of their first three coming at the expense of “my” Braves. I was sitting in the top row of the upper deck in the old Yankee Stadium when the Bombers won the clinching game of the 1999 World Series over the Braves. Roger Clemens — a truly masterful though remarkably unlikeable pitcher, if ever there was one — was on the mound for New York. After baffling the weak Atlanta lineup (the Braves scored just nine runs in the four-game series), Clemens gave way to Jeff Nelson for a single batter, and then to Mariano Rivera.
It was only Rivera’s third season as the Yankees’ closer, but he had already established himself as the game’s premier reliever. He saved a league-leading 45 games during the ’99 season, compiling a 1.83 ERA and a .88 WHIP. Rivera finished 3rd in the American League Cy Young voting. In the playoffs, he was even better, throwing 12 1/3 scoreless innings while striking out nine and walking just one lone batter. I mention all this to explain why, at the age of 11 and attending my first and (up to this point) only deciding game of a World Series, I felt the sudden urge to run from the stadium as quickly as I could.
The moment Rivera stepped on the mound with two outs in the eighth inning, the game was ostensibly over. The Braves were down three and would need to make up that deficit against the game’s second-most dominant pitcher (lest we forget about the force of nature that was turn-of-the-century Pedro Martinez). I knew how it would end. It would end with Rivera retiring each of the four batters he faced and with me living through another season where the Braves came so close, only to fall short. I didn’t run. I stayed in my seat, but that’s how it ended all the same.
In the 14 years since that game, that sense of finality when Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” begins blasting from the Yankee Stadium loudspeakers and No. 42 emerges from the bullpen has never gone away. Rivera has always been the constant in a game defined by inconsistency. I’ve heard fellow Yankee-haters describe their affinity for Derek Jeter or Jorge Posada or even Andy Pettitte — fine choices all. For me, the exception to my distaste for the Yankees was always Rivera. The explanation isn’t a particularly exciting or nuanced one; it’s just difficult not to appreciate greatness when you witness it. I’m not talking about temporary, fleeting greatness, but rather one-of-a-kind, historic greatness.
A closer could never be considered the Roger Federer or Tiger Woods of baseball — it’s just not a role that allows enough overall contribution to fully justify that comparison. But Rivera was certainly the Federer of closers — and for far longer than Federer was the Federer of tennis. It’s as if Rivera’s failures, however brief or small, signified some sort of cosmic shift. He was perfect so often that imperfection from him seemed unnatural. Nearly every summer for the last decade, Rivera has gone through a stretch where he’s blown a couple saves in a week, almost as though he were a pitching machine that had to briefly recalibrate before launching headlong into the final months of the season. And every time, commentators and pundits would wonder aloud, “Is this the end for Mo Rivera?” Each time that question has been asked, the answer was the same. Since 2003, Rivera finished just one season with an ERA above 2.16 or fewer than 30 saves.
In 2002, I read Sports Illustrated‘s cover article that named San Diego right-hander and “Hell’s Bells” aficionado Trevor Hoffman the greatest closer of all time. At that point, it was probably true. Within a couple years, however, it wasn’t. Rivera surpassed Hoffman, not in total saves (at that point), but in reality and in the eye of the public. He never looked back.
By now, the chasm that separates Mo from every other reliever in the history of baseball is wider than the one that separates the top athlete at any position in any sport and his competition (with the possible exception of cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, India’s record-setting batsman). Other pitchers in my lifetime have been more dominant (Clemens), more brilliant (Pedro), more intimidating (Randy Johnson) and even more exacting (Greg Maddux). But none has been more consistently exceptional than Rivera.
So even when that nagging question was justifiably asked last season after Rivera went down with a torn ACL in May at the age of 42, the answer remained the same. Mo said as much himself, sounding more like a T-101 than an aging pitcher: “I’m coming back,” he said at the time. “Write it down in big letters. I’m not going out like this.” And he didn’t go out like that. He came back and went out in a way that so thoroughly resembled his career: perfect.
Last night’s game between the Yanks and Tampa Bay Rays wasn’t exactly what you’d call riveting baseball. The Bronx Bombers had been eliminated from playoff contention the night before and it quickly became apparent that the sellout crowd of 48,675 was there for only one reason: to bear witness to Rivera’s final game in those wonderful, horrible pinstripes. The Rays, who are still battling for one of the American League’s two wild card spots, jumped out to an early 1-0 lead on Ivan Nova. With the way Tampa Bay starter Alex Cobb was mowing down the Yanks, a single run looked like it would be plenty. So from about the third inning on (and perhaps even the first, if we’re being honest with ourselves), the contest wasn’t so much a baseball game as it was a waiting game.
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As it turns out, the New York faithful wouldn’t even have to wait until the 9th inning for Rivera’s arrival. Already down 2-0 and having left two runners in scoring position to end the bottom of the 7th, the Yankees brought in Dellin Betances to start the inning. After he allowed a hit to the Rays’ first batter of the inning, the “MAR-I-A-NO” chants began. Two runs and just one out later, Yankee Stadium heard the announcement it had been waiting for, courtesy of the late Bob Sheppard: “Now pitching for the New York Yankees, No. 42, Mariano Rivera. No. 42.” The place erupted. As “Enter Sandman” played for the final time, Rivera jogged to the mound to do what he’s done best for the last 19 years: stop the bleeding. Two quick outs later, he’d done just that.
After a scoreless bottom of the eighth for the Yanks, Rivera came back out to get two quick outs in the ninth. That’s when things got a little interesting. From my perch in the upper deck, I could see two figures walking toward the mound but couldn’t for the life of me figure out who they were or why there would be two of them. Then the Jumbotron put them on the screen, and it couldn’t have made more sense that Jeter and Pettitte were going to be the ones to give Rivera his final hook in Yankee Stadium. The fans roared, of course, but as I looked around, what I noticed more was the vague look of satisfied euphoria on the face of every New York fan. They couldn’t quite believe it was happening this way — for that matter, I couldn’t either — but at the same time, it became inevitable, as if there had never been any other way.
Almost always, it’s a messy, awkward part of the game when a manager comes out to tell a pitcher he’s failed his assigned task and must now walk back to the dugout, head bowed in shame, while another man comes in to do the job he couldn’t. On the rare occasions when Rivera has been imperfect, it’s happened to him. But on this night, the pulling itself was both an act of perfection and a confirmation of perfection — undoubtedly the happiest pitching change in baseball history. It’s only fitting that it belongs to Rivera and the Yankees.
After he gave up the ball, Rivera buried his head in Pettitte’s shoulder during a long hug, visibly sobbing. Then he embraced Jeter. It was strange to see Rivera, who had played the role of machine on the Yankee Stadium mound for nearly two decades, spend his final moments on it so nakedly human. He walked off the mound, hugged nearly every teammate and coach in the dugout, and then emerged once more for his final curtain call, nearly 50,000 Yankees fans cheering his name. This time, I felt no urge to run.