NEW YORK — It wasn’t Ted Williams and the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway Park, but it was pretty close.
It was New York, but it was the Mets at Citi Field. The two New York teams and fan bases don’t like one another, but the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera got the ovation of his life. Spine-tingling. Emotional. Use all the superlatives you can. Rivera’s perfect eighth inning in the American League’s 3-0 victory over the National League Tuesday night was pretty special.
The oddity is that Rivera pitched his last All-Star Game as an eighth-inning setup man for Texas closer Joe Nathan, who worked the ninth Tuesday night and got the save. It was a scenario none of us expected.
But Rivera, the classy righty who briefly began his career as a starting pitcher and then as a setup man for John Wetteland, was summoned earlier than usual because AL manager Jim Leyland did not want to risk an NL comeback and no bottom of the ninth.
And so Rivera, of course, pitched a scoreless inning, doffed his cap to the crowd, heard the applause of his AL teammates and NL opponents, and walked off into the New York moonlight. Not Yankee New York, but the Mets New York. It was home anyway.
Rivera entered the game to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” for the long run across the outfield grass and onto the mound. He was on the field by himself for about two minutes.
“I didn’t know how to act,” said Rivera. “At that moment I didn’t know what to do. Just keep throwing the ball, I guess [his catcher was on the field]. But at the same time I definitely appreciated what they did for me.”
Players from both benches applauded as the 43-year-old Rivera took his cap off and waved it to all parts of the stadium. “It was tough. It was special,” said an emotional Rivera. “To see the fans sharing and both teams standing out in the dugout, managers, coaches, players . . . priceless. I’ve never been in a situation like this. The only difference is the World Series. Besides that, this has been right there.”
His teammates came out one by one and had his back on the field. Rivera composed himself and breezed through the inning. What else is new?
“I wanted to pitch. You know the game of baseball,” Rivera said. “Anything can happen. Leyland wanted to make sure that I pitch. It was a great idea. I appreciate him giving me the opportunity to do this, in New York, for the fans here. I think the plan was perfect.”
Leyland had been thinking that he may have to have Rivera, the author of 638 career saves, pitch before the ninth.
Neil Diamond had just sung “Sweet Caroline” when the Metallica music came on and overcame that moment.
“I think the Lord has a sense of humor,” Rivera said. “He allowed me to have this last one in New York. Definitely, it’s special, but I’m treating it like the other ones. The only difference is next year I won’t be here.”
Rivera, named the game’s Most Valuable Player, said Leyland spoke to him about the possibility of coming in earlier than the ninth during batting practice. While it was a memorable night for Rivera, how do you think Nathan felt?
“It was a surprise,” Nathan said. “The position players made that such a special moment for him to give credit to a guy who had done so much for this game. He’s taught a bunch of players how to act as human beings and baseball players. What he’s done for people inside the game and outside game.”
Nathan was sweating it out. He knew he might have been the setup guy and he didn’t want to blow it for Rivera, but Leyland took that decision out of his hands.
“It was cool. It was more to get his credit and get him that moment to make sure he got into the game,” Nathan explained. “It was special to hand him a save in a game that he got a hold in. I wanted it [the save ball], but I wanted to give it to him even more.”
Nathan said he was still a little shaky about the moment.
“I’ll calm down next week,” he said. “It was a highlight in my career, for sure. It goes right along with something in the game I’ll never forget. There are moments I’ll remember very clear and this was one of them.
“People in the city wanted him in the ninth. It’s about that moment. It was still unbelievable. I know at one point I was thinking, ‘It’s 2-0 and I may have the eighth. I’d better not give this up.”
Tampa Bay’s Ben Zobrist spoke about the emotional moment when Rivera spoke to the room full of All-Stars.
“He has everybody’s respect,” Zobrist said.
“It was kind of like his chance to say goodbye to this room full of All-Stars and say thank you. He said it’s been a blessing. From what I know about him, that means a lot. He certainly has done the game really well. I think he probably was [emotional] but he wasn’t sobbing.
“He was heartfelt in what he was saying. You can sense the job he’s had and the gratitude for being a part of it so long. He has a grandfatherhood in this room. He’s changed the game more than anyone else in this clubhouse.”
Rivera was asked about being at the top of his game still and why he would retire. “I don’t want to think about it because I might change my mind. I don’t want to do that,” he said.
Though many would want to convince him to do so.