NEW YORK – Sometimes a moment is too right to sweat the details. Maybe it was contrived. Maybe long before the first guitar pluck of "Enter Sandman" gushed through the public-address system at Citi Field on Tuesday and signaled the forthcoming presence of the greatest closer ever, someone suggested the American League All-Stars let Mariano Rivera run onto the field by himself and sponge in the outpouring from his contemporaries, from the fans, from everyone in baseball that appreciates who he is even more than what he's done, which itself is incomparable.
The whole thing could've been as phony as a street-vendor Rolex, and it would've mattered not a bit. Everyone involved swore it was real, an impeccable bit of spontaneity, and there's no sense in questioning that because it felt real, and it will feel real long after Rivera throws his final pitch later this year.
"I think the plan was perfect," Rivera said, and it was: The 43-year-old, in his final All-Star Game, on the pitcher's mound, all of his teammates in the dugout to make this his and his only, pirouetting to applause and cheers from all corners of the stadium, doffing his cap as the closest approximation to a commensurate gesture.
Just as he stands in history's eyes.
It's easy to get maudlin about Mariano Rivera because of what he embodies: one man, one pitch, one legacy. Baseball is forever in search of heroes because that's how the sport always has operated. It builds up ideals and, with that, idols, and it is an unfair mantel for nearly every one. Rivera is the rare exception, a person who was taken out of his customary role in the ninth inning and plopped in the eighth to guarantee he would pitch.
The American League held a 3-0 lead that would register as the final score, and Rivera's teammates figured AL manager Jim Leyland would save the ninth for Mo. When that didn't happen, nobody knew quite what to do. Second baseman Jason Kipnis almost ran onto the field until someone told him to stop. Everyone stood on the dugout steps.
"Let him have the moment," Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter said. "That's his moment. It's the perfect moment, man. You can't beat it. Awesome."
They stood, and they watched, and they marveled, and they partook in the lovefest, too, because he wasn't just one of them. He is Zeus among baseball gods, and this was an easy sacrifice.
Before the game, Leyland tried to give a pregame speech. As he is wont to do, Leyland got weepy at the mere mention of Rivera.
"Our goal is to get Mariano in," he said before yielding the floor to Hunter, who transitioned into a rah-rah speech about how there is pride in playing for the AL, how being an All-Star means something, and by example he pointed to Rivera. "You're looking at greatness," Hunter said, and then he asked Rivera to give a speech.
Rivera walked into the middle of the clubhouse, this his 13th All-Star Game, each more improbable than the last. He has saved 638 games throwing the same thing, a cut fastball that is the best pitch ever. He's got 30 saves this season, along with a 1.83 ERA, and that's a year after a torn ACL threatened his career. Rivera urged everyone to appreciate the game, the chance to be an All-Star, the honor it represents. Forget about the game foolishly counting for home-field advantage and the dipping television ratings. All of that is noise. This was real.
"He's like a pastor," Twins closer Glen Perkins said. "He's just talking, but it sucks the air out of you."
Throughout All-Star week, players young and old had approached Rivera not just to be in his presence but so they could pick his brain about a small sliver of the baseball world that interested them. Myopia is a common disease of the baseball player; self-absorption helps them deal with the game's inherent failure. And yet dozens of players solicited but a moment with Rivera to hear his opinion – or just to thank him.
Think about that: 29 other teams cannot claim Mariano Rivera their own, but every player there – even those in the National League – treasures him. They didn't care that Rivera got the hold – his first since Sept. 21, 2002 – instead of the save. Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder gave Rivera the ball from his 16-pitch, 1-2-3 eighth inning and Rangers closer Joe Nathan offered up the final out of his first All-Star save.
"It was a no-brainer," Nathan said. "It was my first one, and I wanted it. But I wanted to give it to him even more."
[Related: Prince Fielder rumbles toward a triple]
Throughout this season, Rivera has picked up mementos of his career. No road team cared that he was the opponent. Rivera is baseball's to share, a seemingly clean, well-intentioned, bright role model. In other words, the new baseball-player archetype.
No matter how odd it was, nobody really cared that Rivera pitched the eighth instead of the ninth. Certainly not him. There is no time for such trivialities, especially not in a situation such as Tuesday, the epitome of celebrations for a man who will retire with a fistful of World Series rings. That he was this generous with his time surprised nobody, least of all those who look up to him most.
As in love as Yankees fans are with Rivera, his fellow players cherish what he means to the game more than anyone. Orioles third baseman Manny Machado was born two years after Rivera signed with the Yankees in 1990, and even the idea of sharing a clubhouse with Rivera left him swollen with excitement. To be included in one of the week's better ideas was the coup de grace.
Red Sox slugger David Ortiz thought it would be fun to gather a group of Latin American players and snap a picture that would represent the game's Latin revolution. It is a photograph that says so much about baseball today: a Triple Crown winner, a Cy Young winner, a home run champion and seven others in a semicircle around Rivera, who sits in the middle with his legs crossed, like a grandfather telling a great fairy tale of the fisherman's son from Panama who did great things.
"It's something big for all of us," said Blue Jays first baseman Edwin Encarnacion, one of the players in the picture. "We have so much respect for Mariano. The way he's done it through his career is incredible."
To them, and to so many, it makes no difference that Rivera's career came an inning at a time, that the modern bullpen turned him into a one-inning specialist when one-inning specialists are merely the function of an inefficient revolution. That is little more than a subplot with an easy rebuttal: He was doing his job, and no matter how little that job may have taxed him, Rivera did his better than everyone else.
On this night, his job was to pitch the eighth inning, and doing so flawlessly would win him perfunctory MVP honors. The first person out of the AL dugout was Salvador Perez, a 23-year-old catcher for the Kansas City Royals and a first-time All-Star. Rivera could've stood there all night by himself, but it was time to throw a pitch. He told Perez he needed only one signal, wound up like he had hundreds of thousands of other times and, on the night that was his, finally threw the ball. It was a strike. A perfect strike.
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