Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 29, 2013

Amid Cheers And Tears, One Final Mo-Ment

It’s late Thursday afternoon in Manhattan. As it makes its underground journey north, first beneath Park Avenue as far as 42nd Street before shifting east and continuing on beneath Lexington, the 4 Train is filled to overflowing. It’s rush hour of course, but there is more to it than that. I learned long ago that even at peak times one can usually find some space by making the walk down the subway platform to the last car. It’s a doubly good strategy, because when the train arrives at the elevated 161st Street Station in the Bronx, one can slip down the stairs at the rear of the platform while the bulk of riders jostle for position on the lone exit stairway in the middle of the station. But today even the last car is packed.

For every commuter making his or her way home after a long workday there is a fan, readily identifiable by a cap or pinstriped jersey or sweatshirt bearing the familiar interlocking NY. On the backs of many of the shirts are the numbers of a favorite player. On this train ride, a disproportionate number of those bear the number 42. We are Yankees fans, on our way to The Stadium. It’s the 81st and final home game of a season steeped in disappointment, presaging a winter shrouded in doubt. But this evening, for a game meaningless in the standings, we will fill every seat. The cheers that ring out will be the loudest at the new place since the 6th and final game of the 2009 World Series. For now comes the ending of an age. Tonight the Sandman exits. Tonight we say goodbye to Mariano Rivera.

Departing the subway, I make my way through the press of human flesh, eventually up to my familiar third deck, but this night on the third base side. I have planned ahead for this seat on the visitor’s side of the infield, because on this eve I want to be able to see into the Yankees dugout.

The initial roars echo across the field even before the first pitch is thrown. A brief video tribute plays on the giant screen in center field, and when the image of a young Rivera first appears the response is immediate and deafening. As the pre-game warm-ups conclude he is signing autographs for a mass of fans crowded into the first rows of the premium seats, then at last he disappears down the steps and into the clubhouse. When we see him again, more than two hours later, it will be in the Yankees bullpen.

Before that time arrives the Tampa Bay Rays, still clinging to a Wild Card spot, take the lead in a game that matters greatly to them. Perhaps in a celluloid version of this evening the Yankees would mount a furious comeback to set up one final save situation for Mo. But this is not a Hallmark Channel movie, and the patched together Yankees lineup has been short on magic all season long. A 1st inning single by Eduardo Nunez is the only Yankees hit through seven frames. Meanwhile the Rays plate one in the 4th and another in the 7th off Ivan Nova, who is effective but being outpitched by Alex Cobb.

In the top of the 8th Dellin Betances jogs in to relieve Nova. Ben Zobrist raps a grounder that draws first baseman Lyle Overbay away from the bag, and when Betances is slow covering the Rays have their leadoff man on. In the bullpen David Robertson has been warming. Now he is joined by the familiar slender figure. Even as Rivera begins his stretching routine anticipatory cheers explode. One out later James Loney doubles Zobrist to third, and then Evan Longoria singles both runners home. The Tampa Bay lead is now 4-0. Betances then walks David DeJesus on four pitches. With that, the time has come.

Manager Joe Girardi steps out of the dugout, tapping his right arm with his left hand. As if on cue all 48,675 of us in the stands rise to our feet, and the roars begin to pour down onto the field. For one final time the bullpen door swings open and Rivera steps through onto the warning track. A momentary pause, as always, and then the Great Game’s premier closer begins his jog to the mound. The noise is so great that it nearly drowns out the chords of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” and the recorded voice of the late Bob Sheppard announcing Rivera’s entrance.

His statistics are well-known, yet their familiarity makes them no less amazing. A record 652 regular season saves, including 44 this year, at the age of 43. A career WHIP of 1.000. A further 42 postseason saves, matching his uniform number. In 141 playoff innings, a breathtaking 0.70 ERA. And of course, five world championships. But Rivera’s importance to the Yankees and their fans goes far beyond mere numbers. We in the stands revere him not just for what he has done, but also for how he has done it and for who he is. The aggressive chords of his heavy metal entrance song have always been something of a sly joke; for the deeply devout Rivera is unfailingly graceful, humble and forthright. As a role model his finest moments have come in the rare times of defeat. At times when other players would glare angrily at a ball or bat, as if the implement had failed, or refuse to answer questions from the media, Rivera has always accepted responsibility for a pitch that did not go where it was intended. He has also always moved on, reminding us all that for whatever import we assign to it, baseball remains just a game.

Now Mariano is ready. Delmon Young, who homered earlier in the game, swings on the first pitch. A line drive arcs into left field, but Zoilo Almonte moves to his left and makes the catch. Sam Fuld is next, and on the fifth cutter from Rivera he grounds the ball back to the mound. Mo stabs the ball and tosses gently to Overbay, ending the inning. Wave upon wave of cheers roll down from all three decks as he walks to the dugout.

The Yankees threaten in the home half of the 8th, but in the end do not score. Our position players take the field for the top of the 9th, and only then does Rivera come out of the dugout and head back to the mound. Jose Lobaton leads off, and reprises Fuld’s at bat. On the fifth cutter he too grounds back to Rivera, and there is one away. Yunel Escobar steps in, and on Rivera’s 13th pitch of the night he skies a popup to the right side of the infield. Robinson Cano waits under it, and squeezes the ball for the second out. Four batters, four outs, and after each one the volume of the cheering somehow increased.

Now, impossibly, that volume redoubles. For coming out of the dugout are Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte, sent by manager Girardi to retrieve their longtime teammate and friend. They arrive on the mound, where Rivera and Pettitte embrace. After establishing a major league record of 72 win-save combinations the two moundsmen of the Yankees’ Core Four are retiring together. With catcher Jorge Posada already gone, only Jeter will remain from the homegrown foursome who forged a dynasty.

Mo is at last overcome by the moment, and is sobbing. In his postgame interview Girardi will also be reduced to tears. Among all of us in the stands there are few dry eyes as well. After long moments Rivera turns and embraces Jeter, then the three symbols of Yankee greatness make their slow walk back to the dugout, in front of which Rivera turns to all parts of The Stadium, acknowledging the wall of sound that is our inadequate expression of gratitude.

Before the home half of the 9th a new chant begins. We are calling Andy Pettitte’s name, again and again. When the left hander realizes that the Rays are not going to take the field until he responds, Pettitte steps out for his final curtain call. We cannot know it Thursday night, but in two days time he will close his career with a 116-pitch complete game victory in his home town of Houston. The win will even his record at 11-11, meaning he retires as the only pitcher with at least 15 seasons to never have a losing one.

The Yankees go quietly in the 9th, but the night is not quite done. Looking into the Yankees dugout, I see a solitary figure. It’s Mo, sitting on the bench, staring silently out onto the field where he has closed out so many New York victories. At last he stands, and slowly makes his way back out to the mound. We renew our cheers, as he kicks at the dirt around the rubber, loosening it until at last he bends down and scoops up a final remembrance.

It’s very early Friday morning in Manhattan. I am focused on getting from my hotel to Grand Central to catch a train back to Stamford, Connecticut. There my car awaits for a morning drive north and east that will return me to my office by midday. But not before the hotel clerk sees my Yankees cap and wants to share his thoughts. “So Mariano has left us,” he says. I am struck by the funereal phrasing, but then decide that perhaps it is appropriate. “Yes he has,” I reply. “I always loved to watch him pitch,” says the clerk; adding “he was one of a kind.” “Yes he was, and we were just lucky to have him,” I answer, even as I turn to go. Out on the sidewalk my thoughts run to the tributes paid to Rivera at ballparks all across the land this season. Here at the ending of an age it is not just Yankees fans, but everyone who loves the Great Game who can count themselves lucky to have witnessed the greatness and the grace of Mariano Rivera.

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