September 27, 2013 – In the 7th inning of last night’s game at Yankee Stadium, the sold-out crowd began chanting “Mari-ano.”
From my seat, it seemed as if the anticipation for Rivera to come out of the bullpen for the final time in his storied 19-year career, was all that anyone was thinking about.
After Dellin Betances gave up a two-run single to Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Even Longoria, the bittersweet moment had arrived. I was overjoyed to be witnessing a historic moment, but I was also mindful that this would be the last time I would hear “Enter Sandman” and feel the adrenaline rush that I got every time Rivera came into a game since I was a junior in high school.
As he has done every season — and especially this season — Rivera remained unfazed by extraordinary circumstances, mowing down the final two batters of the 8th inning.
An inning later, the Yankees took the field without Rivera. The closer sat in the dugout for a few minutes longer than normal. Writers in press box wondered if he was coming back out. He was, but for the first time in 1,115 appearances, Rivera’s emotions were affecting him.
Within minutes, Rivera had retired the first two batters of the ninth, and one of the great moments in baseball history was about to take place.
With the permission of the umpires, Joe Girardi sent Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte to the mound to pull Rivera from the game.
When Rivera realized what was happening, he smiled at Pettitte and Jeter, who he frequently refers to as his brothers. It’s common knowledge in baseball circles that the three Yankees heroes are very close friends. But, in my opinion, the number of years that the trio spent in the minor leagues together before they won five championships in pinstripes and each authored their own legendary careers, is a big part of what made the moment so special. To say they grew up in the game together is not just a cliché. It’s the reality of their lives.
Mariano Rivera left the mound for the final time with two friends he met when he was a 21-year-old pitching for the Greensboro Bats of the Single-A South Atlantic League in 1991. When Rivera handed the baseball to Pettitte, with whom he also teamed with at Double-A Albany-Colony and Triple-A Columbus in 1994 and in Columbus again in 1995, he began to cry.
After the game, Pettitte was asked what he said to Rivera as he stood in front of the world and embraced the closer. Pettitte told Rivera that he loved him and that it was an honor to be his teammate.
Still crying, Rivera wrapped his arms around Jeter, who he teamed with when the two were trying to claw their way out of Greensboro in 1993 and in 1994 with Albany-Colony and in Columbus during the 1995 season.
After almost five minutes, during which time the crowd cheered passionately and loudly, Rivera began to walk away from the mound — and the game he has given so much to. The cheers kept going as Rivera tipped his cap and waved to the crowd over and over.
Rivera, who called his exit from the game a blessed moment, outdid himself in his swan song. His emotions were heartfelt, and he didn’t try to hide them. It made me, and probably millions of other people, gain an even keener awareness of what the game and the people he cares about mean to Rivera.
A half inning later, the crowd began to chant Pettitte’s name, and he emerged from the dugout for one last ovation at Yankee Stadium.
In sports, it’s rare for athletes to go out on top, but Rivera and Pettitte did just that. After last night, it’s hard to imagine anyone leaving the game with more dignity, respect and love.
–Alfred Santasiere III