Mariano Rivera's Day A Winner Despite The Outcome

Gifts, Tributes For The Closer Who Embodied Class

Retiring Yankees closer Mariano Rivera was honored Sunday before his final game at Yankee Stadium.

NEW YORK — The afternoon had been so sweeping in Yankees pride and nostalgia, so grand in ceremony and testimony, so lavish in gifts, so brash in Metallica guitar riffs, it would have been easy in the giddy possibilities of the day to overlook the silent, dignified intimidation of the greatest relief pitcher in history.

Jorge Posada, behind the plate for 368 of Mariano Rivera's major league-record 652 saves, would give us his unique view of the quiet desperation that stepped into the batter's box against Mariano's cut fastball.

"You saw it in the adjustments of the hitters," Posada said after a 50-minute ceremony to honor Rivera before the Yankees fell to the San Francisco Giants, 2-1. "Carlos Baerga [a switch-hitter] deciding to hit right-handed, people using smaller bats. They'd use a white bat all game and suddenly a black bat would come out. A left-handed hitter would get off the plate and go forward a little bit so the cutter wouldn't be on his hands.

"Yeah, there were a lot of adjustments that told me they already were beaten."

Joe Torre, the patron saint of the great Yankees teams through the turn of the 21st century, said he came to better understand that desperation in one of the All-Star Games he managed.

"As a manager, you always wonder what the opposition is thinking," Torre said. "I used to like to get all the players into the All-Star Game and in [2000] I went, 'Guys let's score some more runs. We have a one-run lead.' Somebody dragged on my jacket from behind. I turned around. It was Darin Erstad [of the Angels]. He goes, 'Who's pitching the ninth? I said Mariano. He said, 'You don't need any more runs.' That struck me. It gave me an idea of the respect he garnered throughout the game."

After 19 years, that respect had been multiplied 652 times and exponentially multiplied from there by a postseason record that should make Rivera a first-ballot unanimous Hall of Famer. Yet here was this Sunday afternoon unraveling in late September, one emotionally charged not only with Mariano Rivera Day but with the last home regular-season start of Andy Pettitte's career. It would be a story that ended in cruel defeat, one that surely will be remembered as all but burying the Yankees' last playoff chances, yet one that ultimately pointed to the indomitable spirit of Panama's great gift to baseball. And like his quiet, bat-shattering intimidation, Rivera's unbreakable competitive spirit cannot — must not — ever be overlooked. His dignity deserves an infinite shout-out.

"Baseball is not who Mo is — baseball is what he does," manager Joe Girardi said. "I think there is a lot to be learned from that. As much as baseball is a passion of ours, Mo has life in perspective. That is what we all marvel at, why we all look up to him. How he goes about his business. What a great example of a man."

On his day, Rivera came in, pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings and was ready to pitch the 10th if the Yankees had tied the game. The pairing of Pettitte and Rivera combined to produce the most saves in baseball history, yet with runners on second and third and nobody out in the eighth, it looked this time as if Rivera would pick up the win. Zoilo Almonte and Robinson Cano were promptly thrown out at the plate. It was a lousy way to lose.

Posada still marvels at the way Rivera cares so deeply yet is so quickly able to put defeat behind him.

"I asked him why was he like that?" Posada said. "He told me he gave me it all out on the field, he wouldn't change anything he did and, 'Sometime, they're just going to get you.' I mean, 2001 was the toughest one, yet after he talked to the media, he was good."

At one time, early on, it was wondered if he didn't care enough. Eventually it became apparent much deeper forces were at work. So many closers are about loud histrionics. Mariano is about quiet history.

"It is the Lord and this woman [his wife, Clara] next to me," Rivera said in explanation. Simple. Profound.

Rivera appeared in 41 more postseason games and had 24 more saves than anybody. His 0.70 ERA is the lowest ever. He was on the mound for four World Series-clinching outs, twice as many as anybody. He has blown only five of 47 postseason save opportunities; one of them, of course, was the flare hit by Luis Gonzalez in Arizona in 2001. Remember the adjustments conceived by intimidation? Gonzo said he choked on the bat like crazy, something he never did, so he wouldn't have it shattered by Mo's cutter.

"You handed him the ball," Torre said. "You became a spectator. There was no more work for me to do. He was about as good a security blanket as a manager could ever have. You don't work for George Steinbrenner for 12 years as a manager unless something magical happens. I don't care what era you're talking about, there's nobody that's ever going to do what he has done as a closer.

"He never made an excuse. If it didn't work out, you never second-guessed yourself as a manager."

Awash in standing ovations, video testimonials from everybody from Tom Brady to Paul Simon, Metallica playing "Enter Sandman" as Rivera walked in from Monument Park during the pregame, it was an extraordinary day. Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel, and daughter, Sharon, were here to honor him as last player to wear No. 42. The Yankees retired Rivera's own No. 42 to make him the first active Yankee accorded the honor.

"When I'm still playing, I'm retired already," Rivera said. "It's an honor for me to be the last MLB player to ever wear No. 42. Even though I didn't meet him, Jackie Robinson has been a hero and an inspiration for me.

Posada, Bernie Williams, Hideki Matsui, Paul O'Neill, John Wetteland, Tino Martinez, David Cone, Jeff Nelson and Torre took their place on the infield and later Rivera would be surrounded by Derek Jeter and his current teammates. Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared Sept. 22, 2013, as "Mariano Rivera Day."

Among the gifts, Rivera got a Willie Mays-autographed guitar from the Giants that they designed in conjunction with Metallica. The Yankees presented him a $100,000 check for the Mariano Rivera Foundation. Jeter and Girardi brought out a rocking chair made in part of baseball bats. He received a baseball glove fashioned out of Waterford crystal.

Rivera thanked God. Rivera thanked his wife and sons. In thanking his parents, Rivera, despite his royal countenance, showed he is not immune from humor. He joked about his conception. "I guarantee it was a great day or a great night." He thanked the Giants. He thanked Panama. He thanked America. He thanked his teammates past and present.

"This man I wish was here, Mr. George Steinbrenner," Rivera said. "I love him so much and I do miss him.

"And you fans, thank you for 19 years of support … I will never forget that. You guys will have part of my heart here in New York."

Rivera has raised money to build hospitals. His work for charity has been tireless and sometimes untold. He never was an attention seeker. The way he has gone from city to city on his farewell tour, bent on meeting behind-the-scenes people, people who have endured hardships, has been amazing. He deserved his day. He also deserved the win.

"It hurts," Girardi said.

"It hurts," repeated Pettitte, who had retired the first 14 batters he faced.

Rivera? Earlier this season, he may has best explained himself when he told reporters, "The only thing I'm going to miss is going to be the fight, the competition. When you love something, you don't just forget loving it. You love it until you die." Mariano's passion and dignity is in the way he lives. It is an impossible to beat a man like that.

CHICAGO