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Rivera bids tearful farewell to Yankee Stadium

The SportsXchange

NEW YORK -- Mariano Rivera will not conclude his career with his version of a perfect ending: a shattered bat, a weak grounder and Rivera falling to his knees and being engulfed by teammates as the celebration of the New York Yankees' 28th World Series championship begins.

What happened Thursday night ranked as a wholly satisfying substitute.

Rivera retired all four batters he faced in his final appearance at Yankee Stadium before he was lifted from the game -- not by manager Joe Girardi but by fellow "Core Four" members Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter -- with two outs in the top of the ninth inning of the Yankees' 4-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.

Pettitte, who is also retiring after the season, took the ball from Rivera, who wept into Pettitte's shoulder as the two hugged and a sellout crowd of 48,675 stood and roared. Rivera hugged Jeter before leaving the mound and doffing his cap to the Tampa Bay dugout.

Rivera then turned to center field and stared into the distance, his hat still extended, before walking off the field as members of the Rays and the police on the field all applauded him.

A couple minutes after the final out, Rivera walked out to the mound one more time. He pawed at the dirt with his foot and then bent down to collect some dirt.

"We lost, but besides that it was a great night," Rivera said.

The tribute in Rivera's home finale provided an appropriate end to an individual career and a collective era that are not likely to be repeated.

The Yankees were eliminated from the wild card race Wednesday, which meant Thursday was their first meaningless home game since Oct. 3, 1993.

"Pitching for a team that good, staying that healthy for that long ...," Tampa Bay Rays reliever Jamey Wright said Thursday afternoon, his voice trailing off.

Wright knows of the long odds Rivera beat: The Rays are the 10th major league team for Wright, who hopes to pitch in the postseason next week for the first time in his 18-year career.

Rivera, on the other hand, won five World Series rings while pitching only for the Yankees and putting together arguably the best postseason pitching resume in history.

The last baseball player to wear No. 42 will finish his career with, appropriately enough, 42 postseason saves, a 0.70 ERA and a 0.76 walks-and-hits-per-innings-pitched ratio (WHIP).

Those numbers are comparable to the all-time best single seasons authored by relievers: Rays closer Fernando Rodney had 48 saves, a 0.60 ERA and a 0.78 WHIP in 2012, and Oakland A's closer Dennis Eckersley recorded 48 saves, a 0.61 ERA and a 0.61 WHIP in 1990.

However, Rivera's numbers were produced over 141 pressure-packed playoff innings. Rodney and Eckersley combined to throw 148 innings during their dominant regular seasons.

"As a manager, it's really comforting to have him down there because you knew that he was prepared," said Girardi, who also caught Rivera from 1996 through 1999. "Never overwhelmed. The emotions would never get the best of him. He would do his job, and you could ask him to do more than what was maybe expected sometimes."

Rivera got four outs or more in 31 of his 42 postseason saves. Of his record 652 (and counting?) regular-season saves, 119 required at least four outs. Only 14 current big-leaguers have 119 or more saves.

That reliability from March into November -- and the calmness with which Rivera produced it -- makes his brilliance unlikely to be replicated.

Closers are supposed to sprint to the mound, snarl once they get there and expend violent effort with every pitch. But Rivera -- downright frail by baseball standards at 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds -- elegantly jogged out of the bullpen, albeit to the appropriate heavy sounds of Metallica's "Enter Sandman."

Once he arrived at the mound, he used a whisper-like delivery, perfect in his ability to repeat it, and dispatched opposing batters with his famous cut fastball.

"Tipping his pitches constantly -- and (opponents) not being able to hit them -- speaks volumes how good he is," Rays manager Joe Maddon said Thursday.

As remarkable as it is to collect more than 650 saves, Rivera's 2.21 ERA -- 13th lowest all time, behind a dozen men born in the 19th century -- may be the truest indicator of his single-pitch dominance.

"Nobody ever came up just throwing one pitch," said Diamondbacks reliever Heath Bell, a closer for Arizona, the San Diego Padres and the Miami Marlins in his career. "It just seemed like a fastball, (but) it cut and you're like 'Geez, I can't hit it.'"

No matter what closers throw, none is likely to take a run at Rivera's record anytime soon. He became the greatest closer ever in atypical fashion, but the job is still filled by hard throwers who are predisposed to burn bright and then burn out. Only two closers -- the Atlanta Braves' Craig Kimbrel and the Cleveland Indians' Chris Perez -- led their team in saves in each of the past three seasons.

Kimbrel has 138 saves at age 25. He would need to average 40 saves a season for the next 13 seasons to catch Rivera.

"When I see Mariano Rivera, you see that number -- that's his number," Kimbrel said at the All-Star Game. "You just see him, really, because he's the guy who's done it. You see longevity, staying healthy."

The increased specialization of the game means it is easier than ever to find someone who can get the final three outs while often nursing a multi-run lead. Of the 146 40-save seasons in baseball history, 112 occurred since Rivera's first season as a closer in 1997.

"What he's accomplished is amazing -- I mean, it leaves you speechless," said Chicago Cubs closer Kevin Gregg, who embodies the fungible nature of the position. He earned 22 saves for the Baltimore Orioles in 2011, none last season and began this season out of baseball before signing a minor league deal with the Cubs in April and racking up 33 saves.

"To see somebody doing what he's done over the period of time he's done it, with the championships and the consistency -- it's unmatched," Gregg said. "I don't see it happening again."

In other words: Enjoy the final days of Rivera's career and the end of the perfect intersection of a once-in-a-lifetime pitcher mastering his craft for a once-in-a-lifetime team.

Rivera certainly looks as if he could do this until he is collecting Social Security -- he has 44 saves and a 2.11 ERA during his age-43 season -- but there were previously unseen dents in the armor this year. He blew a save without recording an out against the Mets on May 28 and suffered a career-high three consecutive blown saves from Aug. 7-11.

"I think everybody is limited," Rivera said after winning the MVP at the All-Star Game. "It's getting short (for me), too. I don't have anything left. I have no reason to say, you know, I should do this another year."

His absence will be felt next year and thereafter, by both the pitchers and the team he defined.

"When they talk about the greatest ever, he's going to be in every conversation," said San Francisco Giants pitching coach and former Yankees closer Dave Righetti. "What he's meant to this town and what he's meant to his teammates and all the Yankees fans -- he's just been a calming influence, sort of a pillar of strength for that organization since he started doing that job. So when he's gone, it'll be noticed."

Girardi had to pause numerous times during his postgame press conference as he pondered life with -- and without -- Rivera.

"I loved to see him come into the game as a player," Girardi said before wiping his eyes. "As a manager, it was easy. It's not hard to pick up that phone and decide who you want when Mo's down there.

"It was fun."
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