With his final major league season winding down, Mariano Rivera is on a farewell tour, receiving gifts and tributes from opposing teams at every stop, befitting his iconic status and near-universal respect. Prior to Sunday night's game at Fenway Park, the Red Sox bade him adieu, and while their tribute had an edge that rubbed some in the Yankees organization the wrong way, if Rivera didn't take offense, it's not clear why they should.
The 12-minute tribute was emceed by Red Sox radio announcer Dave O'Brien, who hinted at what was to follow as he introduced the festivities thusly:
"Ladies and gentlemen it is hour honor to night to pay tribute to one of the game's great ambassadors. Thorought his stellar career he has been more than the greatest closer the game has ever seen, he has been a model of grace and class. On this, the last regular season visit in a career that has seen him cooperstown bound, we remember all to well how often he has come in and saved victories on this sacred turf. So perhaps he will forgive us if we focus for just a moment with less of a toast and more of a roast."
That cued a video montage recalling Rivera's blown save in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS -- the one set up by pinch-runner Dave Roberts' stolen base -- starring Roberts, the always-insufferable Kevin Millar (whom Roberts replaced at first base after he walked) and Bill Mueller (who drove in Roberts with the game-tying run). After the trio offered their recollection of one of Rivera's rare high-profile failures, all three offered more sincere words for his talent, professionalism and class. You can see the video as well as the rest of the ceremony here:
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Once the 2004 recollections ended, O'Brien recalled Opening Day 2005, narrating clips showing a good-natured Rivera receiving a rousing ovation from the Fenway fans acknowledging his role in Boston's unprecedented come-from-behind ALCS victory from a 3-games-to-0 deficit. Said O'Brien, "And it was your wonderful reaction, that we all saw, that we all remembered. You smiled, you laughed, you understood. You were a good sport, and you acknowledged us. You have been the greatest closer and you have been the classiest of competitors."
O'Brien then called Rivera onto the field, as four Sox players presented him with gifts. David Ortiz, the last man standing from the 2004 team, presented a painting of Rivera raising both arms to acknowledge the Fenway crowd on that Opening Day. Dustin Pedroia presented him with the green 42 placard from the manual scoreboard on the Green Monster — a placard that will never be used again, since he's the last player to wear the number — signed by each member of the current Sox roster. Jon Lester presented him with a blue seat from Fenway Park (number 42, of course) dating back to 1934. Koji Uehara presented the pitching rubber from the visiting bullpen as well as an inscribed plaque.
O'Brien also announced that the team brass would make a donation from the Red Sox Foundation in support of Rivera's charity work in his native Panama, and concluded by reading the inscription from the plaque: "We tip our cap to the great Rivera, a real gentleman, a fierce competitor and a most worthy opponent." Following that, the Sox showed a video montage of the closer striking out several Boston hitters in vintage fashion and again, tipping his cap to the Fenway crowd in 2005.
In all, it was a touching and unique tribute befitting a fierce rivalry between two teams, both of whom had times when they grabbed the upper hand during his career (recall Rivera's exhausting three-inning stint in relief in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS before Aaron Boone's walkoff homer). Even so, the tribute didn't entirely sit well with some members of the Yankees organization, including manager Joe Girardi:
A few Yankees officials and media members we asked right after the ceremony had some raised eyebrows.
“It looked like more of a tribute to the 2004 Red Sox than to Mariano,” said one Yankees scribe.
“Did you think they rubbed in 2004 a little bit too much?” asked one Yankees official.
...After the Red Sox’ 9-2 victory, Rivera was asked if the ’04 theme was too much, he said, “No, they deserved it.”
Jeter, who may one day receive similar treatment around the league, said of the ’04 theme, “I’m sure Mariano could remind them of a few things, but I thought it was funny.”
In retrospect, tributes to retiring players by opposing teams are still relatively unfamiliar beasts -- those of Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn (both 2001) and Chipper Jones (2012) are the only ones that immediately stand out -- and because of that there's no roadmap for the proper way to handle them. The ferocity of the rivalry and the Red Sox franchise's tendency to celebrate a championship that was 86 years in the making (a span that saw the Yankees win 26 titles and break New Englanders' hearts several times in the process) should have been the cue that this would be no ordinary tribute. After all, getting Boston fans to stand and cheer for a player representing the hated Yankees takes some amount of innovation.
And to the victor go the spoils, something Rivera, who was part of five champions himself, certainly understands. “Hey, they won," he told reporters on Sunday when recounting the 2005 situation. "We don’t give it to them; I don’t give it to them. They won. Therefore, they deserve credit. It’s simple like that.”
As the score suggests, Sunday night's game itself was a lopsided one, and Rivera never had a chance to pitch, though he did leave one final mark in the visiting bullpen. From ESPN Deportes' Marley Rivera (no relation):