It was perfect. I mean, it was all wrong: the Yankees were losing, and the Yankees weren't playing for anything, and he came on in the middle of an inning, and left before the job was done, but maybe all of it is what made everything right. Maybe the complete unreality of the night made the whole thing, down to the unique, weepy, technically-rule-violating hook, feel like a going-away party rather than a baseball game.
This is the last time Mariano Rivera will wear pinstripes, until some Old Timer's Day in the near future when he'll probably look exactly the same, and the fastball will still be cutting, and you'll wonder if he couldn't have done this for a few more years if he wanted to. But it's over, and even if a season-long victory lap was secretly as much about saying "we want you to stay" as "we're thankful we got to see you play," the man's done. As Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte approached the mound to remove Rivera from the game, cameras caught the first words exchanged. Jeter to Rivera: "Time to go."
The anticipation built over seven-plus innings; this was the first meaningless baseball game in the Bronx since 1993, when Rivera was a 23-year-old starter at Single-A Greensboro. Fans spent the game chanting "Ma-ri-a-no," because this was to be a celebration. And when Girardi walked to the mound in the eighth and signaled with his right arm, the celebration was on.
The fans went nuts, but it was a veneer of stoicism that prevailed on the mound conference. Rivera was stoic. Girardi was asked what he told his closer when he handed him the ball. "First and second, one out." he said.
Rivera got out of trouble; of course he did. But between innings, he couldn't sit idly on the bench and pretend this was any other game. He retreated to the trainer's room to keep his arm loose, and he sat, and he thought.
“I was alone, trying to put some warm on my arm,” Rivera said. “Everything started hitting me, all the flashbacks.”
Girardi spoke to crew chief Mike Winters. He wanted to pull Rivera in the ninth to get a standing ovation, and he wanted to send out Jeter and Pettitte, who came up with Rivera in 1995 and had been together for every great moment of the Yankee dynasty. Winters checked with Joe Maddon, and said go for it.
"We’ve all grown up together,"’ Jeter said afterward. "It’s too bad good things have to come to an end, I guess, eventually.’"
The two strolled to the mound, smiling, and Rivera smiled too. Then Jeter said his piece, and Pettitte told Rivera, "It’s been an honor to play alongside you," and the dam broke.
"Thank God they came out," Rivera would say. "I’m not sure I would have made it on my own."
I lost it around the same time Rivera did. It's dumb to have any emotional attachment to a professional athlete, but that's a grown-up way of thinking. Rivera's one of the last players still around that I watched in my childhood, back when I wasn't cynical or removed, and he still stirs those feelings of idolization that imprint on you when you're young, and quietly inform your sports fandom for the rest of your life. I'm 29, about the time when more athletes than not are younger than me. Rivera's one of the last players I can honestly say I looked up to. If I shed a tear it's not because he's leaving—he's more than entitled to it—but because my own childhood memories are now firmly and officially the distant past.
After the game, Rivera sat alone in the dugout for a few minutes, taking it in. Maybe he'll pitch this weekend in Houston, maybe he won't—Ted Williams famously took three straight road DNPs after his Fenway goodbye in 1960. Then Rivera strolled out for more cheers, and a handful of dirt.
What's the point of it all? Money? Championships? Rivera's got plenty of both. But after the game, he gave a telling quote. "I’ve had an opportunity to play for 19 years and give the best of my talents and my ability to this organization," he said "Tonight, it paid off." Tonight? There's your clue. Lots of athletes gain fame and hear cheers, but few in recent memory have had the opportunity to be so publicly and unabashedly loved. Yankee Stadium, which will remain dark and quiet and locked until the spring when a new closer tries to answer the bell, was the site of a living wake last night. And like all good wakes, it was a party.