NEW YORK -- His was the Voice of the Yankees, Bob Sheppard’s grand baritone, whose perfect diction and harmonic intonation were the narrative embodiment of old Yankee Stadium, elevating every moment to the highest of theater.
A recording of the late Sheppard’s introduction of “No. 42, Mariano Rivera, No. 42” greeted the opening of the bullpen door in the top of the eighth inning of a September afterthought, the first home game of Rivera’s 19-year career in which the Yankees had already been eliminated. Rivera’s sendoff didn’t need a boost of gravitas, but it didn’t hurt in a game New York trailed 4-0, so Sheppard’s surprise salutation only furthered the frenzy.
From there, Metallica took its cue, and “Enter Sandman” blared in the Bronx for the final time, and Rivera, gripping his glove with his right hand, jogged on in from the bullpen to thunderous cheers and rapid-fire flashbulbs that gave the stands a strobe-like feel, the fans’ final chance to document the greatest relief pitcher of all-time in action.
Echoing the similar moment across town at Citi Field for the All-Star Game, even the opposing Rays took a moment away from their wild-card pursuit to exit the dugout and applaud, a tribute to which Rivera dutifully replied with a tip of the cap.
"It was amazing,” he said later. “It was a great night.”
There were, however, glimpses of baseball as usual. Manager Joe Girardi’s parting words to Rivera on the mound were, “first and second, one out,” a reminder of the mess his reliever was inheriting. Later, after completing his warmup tosses, Rivera paused for a moment behind the rubber and stared at the baseball before returning to the present and gesturing toward Robinson Cano, signaling whom he’d be throwing to at second base in case of a comebacker.
No happenstance was more familiar than Rivera’s results -- he retired all four batters he faced. So many of his previous 1423 1/3 regular and post-season innings were similarly dominant and, though he couldn’t add to his league record 652 saves on this night, he cut through Tampa Bay’s lineup as swiftly as his fastball cut through the air.
The venerable Rivera, a son of the ‘60s born to a Panamanian fisherman, may have lost a few ticks of velocity but not his signature cutter, the pitch he said appeared one day in a game of catch back in ’97 and which he rode to 13 All-Star appearances. Rivera has said he’s retiring because it is the time and that he has given everything he has, up to and including surpassing his age (43) with saves (44) and prompting his even older manager (48) to miss donning his gear and crouching behind home plate.
“To catch someone that was so dominant, I can’t tell you how fun that is for a catcher,” Girardi said. “I don’t really miss catching a lot, but I do miss catching him.”
Girardi had two stints of easy calls: as a catcher, he needed one finger to summon the cutter and, as a manager, he needed one dial of the bullpen phone to preserve a victory.
“As a player, it was fun,” Girardi said. “As a manager, it was easy.”
Despite the carnage Rivera wrought on opponents’ bats (so often broken) and batting averages (so often lowered), he engendered respect -- evident in both Tampa Bay’s applause on Thursday and the barrage of gifts all season -- because, Rays manager Joe Maddon said, Rivera showed respect in return.
“The way he goes about his business is very understated,” Maddon said. “He just goes out there and shoves it on you in a very polite way.”
Between the eighth and ninth innings, Rivera retreated down the dugout tunnel, rather than remain on the bench, partly to keep his arm warm and partly to regain his composure, as flashbacks of his career ran through his mind. After he jogged back to the mound, past his own No. 42 painted into foul territory, he struggled to command his pitches for the first two outs of the ninth.
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“I don’t know how I got those two last outs,” Rivera said. “I was bombarded with emotions and feelings. I could have just cried.”
The tears came soon thereafter. Girardi delegated his pitching change to a pair of tenured veterans, Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter, who walked out to retrieve Rivera for retirement. As they reached the mound, Rivera dissolved into tears on Pettitte’s shoulder, where he stayed buried for half a minute, longtime teammates who quite literally grew up together through the ranks of this baseball organization. Rivera then spent time on Jeter’s shoulder before the Captain told him, “Time to go.”
“I’m glad Joe let us be a part of it,” Jeter said, “because we’ve been like brothers for 20 years.”
Said Rivera, “I needed them there, and they were there.”
The trivia-question battery of Matt Daley (pitcher) and J.R. Murphy (catcher) mopped up the inning’s final out, and after the Yankees went in order in the bottom half of the inning, the game was over and so too was Rivera’s career in pinstripes. He may pitch a final time in the final series in Houston, though doing so in his road grays against a long-ago eliminated club could not stand to improve upon the tribute Rivera received on this night.
Perhaps he recognized that as he sat by his lonesome at the end of the dugout bench, clutching his cap and looking longingly out toward the field, like the child who doesn’t want to go home. Eventually Rivera returned to the field and ascended the mound, digging his right foot alongside the rubber once again, looking almost like he wanted to throw another pitch.
Instead, Rivera used his cleats to loosen the ground for a keepsake. He then walked off the mound a final time, clutching a bit of clay and the last of his career.