While the Tampa Bay Rays may have won the game 4-0, the sellout crowd of 48,675 at Yankee Stadium on Thursday night did not care. In the first meaningless home game for the New York Yankees since before Rivera threw his first major league pitch, fans gathered to watch as the legendary closer took the mound in front of the home crowd one final time.
The cheers and chants of “Mariano! Mariano!” on Thursday began prior to the top of the eighth inning, when Rivera removed his jacket and started stretching in center field. They continued all throughout rookie pitcher Dellin Betances’ performance, and after he walked David DeJesus to put two men on with just one out, manager Joe Girardi elected to turn the game over to his legendary closer.
When the bullpen door finally opened, chants and cheers turned into a thunderous roar. There was a surprise taped introduction of Rivera by Bob Sheppard, and the familiar sounds of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blared through the stadium loudspeakers as Rivera jogged out of the Yankee Stadium bullpen for the final time. It did not matter that there was no save to record. Instead, the sellout crowd was just happy to be witnessing history: the final appearance for Rivera in pinstripes.
As Rivera made his way to the mound, both teams applauded on the field, members of the bullpens climbed to the wall to watch history, and the fans provided a standing ovation for the future Hall-of-Famer.
With his warm-up complete, Rivera reminded everyone just how dominant he has been over the course of his career. He worked out of trouble with ease in the eighth inning, retiring Delmon Young on a one-pitch flyout before getting Sam Fuld to bounce back to the mound. The athletic Rivera fielded the ball cleanly and tossed to first base, ending the inning.
Rivera started the ninth inning in the same fashion, inducing a grounder to the mound from Jose Lobaton. After tossing ball one to Yunel Escobar, Rivera got him to pop out to Robinson Cano on an 89 mile-per-hour cutter, and just like that, it was over.
Time was called on the field, and it was not Joe Girardi, but rather longtime teammates Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter who trotted to the mound. With grins on their faces, Pettitte tapped his right arm to signal the bullpen and remove Rivera with two outs in the ninth inning, just in time to give him a special sendoff from the home crowd.
“Time to go,” Jeter said. The Captain didn’t hear a response. “He was crying,” Jeter said. “So he couldn’t really speak.”
Rivera hugged both teammates as he buried his face in Pettitte’s shoulder and wept on the mound, seemingly in shock himself that his reign of dominance in Yankee Stadium was coming to an end. In the stands, fans watched with a combination of pride and sadness, and there was not a dry eye in the stadium as Major League Baseball’s all-time saves leader left his final game in pinstripes.
“I didn’t expect for him to be quite so emotional,” Pettitte told reporters. “He broke down and just gave me a bear hug, and I just bear-hugged him back. He was really crying. He was weeping. I could feel him crying on me. I think I was just telling him, ‘Man, you’ve been so awesome to play with.’ Just sharing stuff with him that I’ve already told him and he knows. Just telling him that I appreciate it and I love him. It’s just been an honor to play alongside him. That was what I was trying to say to him.”
Rivera’s longtime teammates had told him before the ninth inning began they would come get him. The idea was first hatched by Joe Girardi during the eighth inning, and he then checked with the umpires as to whether two players were allowed to remove another. Once he got the go-ahead, he pitched the idea to Jeter and Pettitte, who were part of five World Championship teams with Rivera.
“My first thought was, ‘Ahh, I don’t know,’” Pettitte said. “‘That might be a little weird.’ Then everybody on the bench, all the guys, were like, ‘You’ve got to do it.’ I’m so glad we did.”
The 43-year-old relief pitcher admitted he was nearly undone by his nerves as he began the ninth inning, knowing he was nearing the end of one of the greatest careers of all-time. Prior to the inning, he had even descended into the training room to find a heat pack for his arm in an effort to help regain his composure.
“During the ninth inning, the first few pitches, I couldn’t control (them),” Rivera said after the game. “I was bombarded with emotions and feelings that I couldn’t describe. Everything hit at that time. I knew that that was the last time, period. I never felt something like that before.”
For Rivera, the emotional farewell is something he will always remember. After the game was concluded, he sat in the dugout for several minutes before walking back to his mound. It was here that he kicked at the rubber one final time before kneeling to the ground and scooping some of the dirt into his hand before exiting the Yankee Stadium playing field for the final time.
“I won’t call it magical, I would call it blessed,” Rivera said. “I’ve had an opportunity to play for 19 years and give the best of my talents and my ability to this organization. Tonight, it paid off. The fans, they definitely appreciate that. My family, my wife, my kids, the whole fans. It was amazing. A great night. We lost, so I don’t know how I’m saying that, but it was a great night.”