NEW YORK – The best gift of Mariano Rivera's farewell tour is something he cannot touch. It is the joy of a surprise and the emotion of friendship and the indelibility of a memory and all of the saccharine stuff that belongs on a Hallmark card. Cynicism defines modern sports, and that is all well and good so long as it can find a counterbalance in the tears of a man overwhelmed by happiness fighting sadness.
Perfection was the seed of an idea in the head of New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi. It was an umpiring crew that germinated it. It was Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte ascending the dugout steps at Yankee Stadium. It was the smile when Rivera saw them. And it was what came after, a scene not done justice by a picture or a video or words or any of the things that will try to capture it. The man whose job entails composure above everything lost it. After 19 years of dead-eyed stoicism, Mariano Rivera let down his guard and took one minute to cry his eyes out.
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What happened Thursday night, the final one in which Rivera will take the mound in the city that grew to revere him, means so much more than the paintings and cowboy boots and chairs made of broken bats with which other teams feted him as he hit ballparks across the country this summer. They were trying to pay homage to the greatest closer in history, his 652 saves and a fistful of World Series rings attesting as much, and to a great man, his humility and actions doing the same. Eventually, those gestures will collect dust somewhere. This one is forever pristine.
"It was amazing," Rivera said. "It was amazing."
Baseball reserves these sorts of moments for a special few. This was Cal Ripken jogging around Camden Yards, Lou Gehrig telling Yankee Stadium and the world that he's the luckiest man on earth. Girardi wanted to do something. He caught Rivera as a player and relied on him as a manager. "He made my job fun," Girardi said. "He made my job easy. But probably more important than that, he made all our lives better."
Talking in the past tense – acknowledging that Rivera, at 43, will leave baseball after a three-game series in Houston this weekend – caused Girardi to tear up, too. He talked about how he dreamt up the idea of Jeter and Pettitte, Rivera's teammates since 1995, going to the mound with one out remaining in the ninth inning and taking the ball from Rivera to allow him one final walk off the mound, one ovation from those who packed the stands that aren't packed much anymore. Girardi asked umpire Laz Diaz, who ran it by crew chief Mike Winters, who gave the go-ahead. And so it would be.
Rivera would jog in from the bullpen in the eighth inning, "Enter Sandman" straining one final time through the Yankee Stadium speakers, to fix the mess rookie Dellin Betances left him. He would do it because that's what he does. And then he would return for the ninth, induce a comebacker and a pop-up, and stare back in at catcher J.R. Murphy. There was one more out to get, and any closer who takes his mind off that isn't worth much of a damn, even if his team is down 4-0 and his appearance is more ceremonial than anything.
The ovation came almost instantaneously. Jeter and Pettitte emerged from the dugout, and Rivera was oblivious until they were about 75 feet from him. The dimple in his left cheek flared. In between the eighth and ninth innings, Rivera had retreated to the trainers' room to keep his arm warm, and the gravity of this night, of coming to terms with his final moment of consequence at Yankee Stadium nigh, bombarded him – "All the flashbacks," he said, "from the minor leagues to the big leagues all the way to this moment."
So this. This. His tear ducts could not withstand this. He handed the ball to Pettitte, lurched into him and wept. Pettitte let go of his hug, as if to give Rivera permission to move over to Jeter, only to see Rivera squeeze harder. Five seconds yielded to 10, which carried over to 20, which continued onto 30. And after half a minute of burying his head in Pettitte's shoulder, Rivera did the same with Jeter. This, he was saying. Thank you for this.
Rivera started his walk back toward the dugout. He doffed his cap to his left, then his right. He sidestepped his way around the No. 42 spray-painted into the grass, taking with him a vestige of Jackie Robinson's legacy. He acknowledged the left-field stands and those in right. He wiped away tears with his right hand, then his left arm, then his right hand again. He hugged Girardi and entered a dugout with teammates clapping until he embraced them. Once Rivera let go, they started clapping again.
Another chant from the crowd started: "We want Mo. We want Mo." He emerged from the dugout again. He pirouetted, dizzied by all of it, by this. A man would be fortunate to get in his lifetime what Mariano Rivera got on Thursday.
The Yankees had tried to pull out all the stops for Rivera. On Sunday, they honored him with a touching ceremony. For this final game, they used the voice of the late, great P.A. announcer Bob Sheppard to introduce him. Cameraphone flashes sizzled. The vertically challenged lamented their genetics. This was going to be something worth seeing.
"As good as it gets," Girardi said. "This is as good as it gets."
And then somehow it got better. The game ended. The Tampa Bay Rays won 4-0 and inched closer to a postseason the Yankees will sit out. All of Rivera's teammates exited into the clubhouse. He sat on the right side of the bench by himself. Photographers noticed and swarmed. This was his career: alone, all eyes on him, wondering what he'll do and how he'll do it and knowing whatever it is and however it is, almost always it will end up right.
Rivera straightened his hat and stood up from the bench. For one last time, he walked up the steps. The sea of photographers parted. He went past No. 42, over the baseline and to the mound. He stood on top of the rubber, sideways, like he was ready to throw a pitch. Ten minutes after his last one here, he already missed it.
After kicking the ground a couple times, Rivera bent over. He swept the dirt into a pile, cupped his hands and grabbed a muddy treasure. This was the closest he could come to making the intangible tangible. He walked off the mound and onto the rest of his life with one final gift to remind him of the greatest one possible.