A living legend, Mariano Rivera's final All-Star Game was unforgettable
NEW YORK -- The content of mound conversations is a source of observers' endless speculation and movie spoofs, as one can't help but wonder whether the chatter is strictly strategy or strays into the superfluous. But one can rest assured that the dialogue between American League catcher Salvador Perez and closer Mariano Rivera went exactly as you would expect.
"We were talking about the signs," Perez said. "That was easy because there was just one sign."
Rivera's dominance, after all, is owed to a single pitch of singular dominance. He assured his young battery mate that he was easy to catch. All Perez had to do was hold down one finger, sometimes inside and sometimes outside, and wait for the cutter.
In his 13th and final All-Star appearance, the Yankees closer and baseball's all-time saves leader cruised through a 1-2-3 eighth inning with 16 pitches -- all cutters, of course -- as the American League defeated the National League 3-0 and clinched World Series home-field advantage.
As the All-Star Game has grasped for relevance in the past decade, the contrived postseason stakes have helped restore a little of the lost glory but seemed irrelevant on Tuesday night when the organic and impromptu tribute to Rivera stole the show. It was an enduring moment that will live in the annals of Midsummer Classic alongside the gathering around Ted Williams' wheelchair at Fenway Park in 1999.
"Amazing," Rivera said of the response. "I can't describe it. I have no words for it. It's been a wonderful night, the whole event."
Holds rarely generate much attention or accolades, yet Rivera's three outs earned him an MVP award that placed him alongside Hall of Famers Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson, as well as his fellow future Hall of Fame teammate Derek Jeter, as the only four players to win MVPs in both the All-Star Game and the World Series.
The incongruity of him pitching the eighth inning rather than his customary ninth can be overlooked as an overcautious assurance from manager Jim Leyland that Rivera would pitch no matter what, even if his last regular-season hold came in 2002, and even in eight previous All-Star Games he had never pitched earlier than the ninth inning. (Rivera understood his early assignment, saying later, "You never know what can happen in the game of baseball.")
Rangers closer Joe Nathan will no doubt find his name on a Trivial Pursuit answer key a decade from now, as the long-forgotten footnote of the man who actually earned the save in Rivera's final All-Star Game.
"To be able to hand a ball over to him that I saved with him in the bullpen is pretty cool," Nathan said. "Obviously it's no secret that I look up to him and to be able to do that for him was pretty awesome."
When the gray-bearded Neil Diamond finally stopped crooning "Sweet Caroline" out in front of the pitcher's mound between halves of the eighth inning, the Citi Field speakers blasted a more familiar late-inning anthem in Gotham, albeit in a different borough, as "Enter Sandman" greeted baseball's proverbial graybeard, Rivera.
Rivera had been anxiously swaying in the bullpen until he took his cue from Metallica and jogged in to a conspicuously empty field. His American League teammates had delayed taking the field for a prolonged and deserved standing ovation from 45,186 fans and nearly six-dozen of his playing peers, most of whom stood on the top step of the dugout. The NL's bullpen even spilled onto the warning track to chime in its own applause.
In appreciation Rivera doffed his cap repeatedly, thanking the fans and the other All-Stars. He then began warming up uneasily, not sure what else to do with the field behind him still barren, before his fielders finally jogged out to their positions.
"When I got to the mound, I saw both sides, both teams on the dugout [steps], and it was amazing," he said. "It almost made me cry, too."
So universally venerated is Rivera that even one of the batters he was set to face, Cardinals first baseman Allen Craig, stood in the on-deck circle and later said, "The extended standing ovation was pretty special, just seeing him thank all the fans and both teams and it was just one of those moments where you had to step back and realize something cool was happening."
Craig even admitted, "I was curious to see what that cutter looks like in person. It's unique. You can clearly see it's a special pitch." (Craig flew out to leftfield.)
One of the few pairs of eyes not intently trained on Rivera was AL reliever Jesse Crain, who was warming up in case Rivera couldn't finish the inning, relegating him to Maytag repairman status.
Rivera has never allowed an earned run in nine innings of All-Star work, though he did suffer an ignominious defeat in his last appearance at Citi Field. In the same game in May when the Mets honored him by asking him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, he blew a save while failing to record a single out for the first time in his career.
Tuesday night, however, went more predictably with the sport's greatest reliever logging a perfect inning, saving an otherwise lackluster game from being forgotten and receiving the adoring sendoff he so rightly deserves.