Mariano Rivera poses with the MVP trophy after the MLB All-Star baseball game, on Tuesday, July 16, 2013, in New York. The American League defeated the National League 3-0. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
In the end, it didn’t matter that Mariano Rivera pitched the eighth inning rather than the ninth. Coronations are more about ceremony than details.
Indeed, as it turned out, Rivera’s final All-Star appearance wasn’t about the lack of a save opportunity, but perhaps the grandest entrance a reliever has ever made.
Not only because they played “Enter Sandman’’ for Rivera here at the Mets’ Citi Field home, but because the American League team stayed in the dugout, allowing Rivera to take the stage for his last performance by himself.
When the legendary closer realized what was happening, with both teams lining the dugout railings and applauding him, Rivera bowed and waved, to the crowd and his fellow players, and found himself fighting back tears.
“They about made me cry,” he said. “I will never forget that.”
Yes, it turned out to be Mariano Rivera’s night, and good thing, because not much else happened — Matt Harvey’s plunking of Robinson Cano notwithstanding — in a nondescript 3-0 win for the American League.
That allowed MLB to name Rivera the MVP of the game, in what was really a lifetime achievement award, and even that felt right.
This doesn’t happen often, folks. Rivera’s class and grace inspire a reverence and appreciation throughout the game that you just don’t normally see.
So there was Bud Selig, presenting Rivera the MVP award and saying, “It’s been a privilege to know you, a privilege to be associated with you.”
And there was crusty old Jim Leyland, twice moved to tears in the postgame press conference as he recalled the emotion of a pregame meeting in which he basically told his players to go out and win this one for the man they call Mo.
Or more importantly, get a lead that would put him in position to pitch one last meaningful inning — perhaps his last on such a national stage, considering the Yankees are no lock to play October baseball this season. “I kind of lied to our players,” Leyland said. “I told them to work their fannies off so we could bring the greatest closer of all time into the game for the ninth.”
Leyland laughed. He knew all along he’d be more likely to bring Rivera in for the eighth, if the game was close at all. After all, if someone else pitched the eighth and somehow blew the lead, there would be no bottom of the ninth for Rivera to pitch.
“I hope you all understand that,” Leyland said. “I’m not the most popular manager anyway. I wanted to make sure I got out of here alive.”
ROBERT SABO/NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Mariano Rivera takes the field as hurlers in the bullpen applaud him.
So Rivera pitched the eighth. With the AL leading, 3-0, at the time, Leyland’s move was overly cautious but understandable.
No surprise, the Yankees closer didn’t disappoint anyone either, working a 1-2-3 inning in 16 pitches, getting a couple of groundouts and a lineout to left, leaving Joe Nathan to finish it off in the ninth.
When his inning was over, Rivera walked off in typical fashion, with no show of emotion. Meanwhile, AL players lined up in the dugout to shake his hand one last time.
“We’re going to try to do it for him, trust me,” the Tigers’ Torii Hunter said before the game.
And then there was teammate Robinson Cano. His leg was wrapped, his night was done, after taking a Matt Harvey fastball above the knee, and the All-Star Game was only in the third inning. Yet he said he had every intention of staying to see Rivera.
“That’s my goal,” Cano said, “just to be here watching for Mariano. He’s meant everything to me since I’ve been with the Yankees. Why not stay here and see if he pitches?”
Rivera said it was humbling to hear players speak of him in these ways. He mentioned that fellow New Yorker David Wright made a point of telling him on Tuesday that he admired how the legendary closer has handled himself during his career.
“That meant a lot,” Rivera said.
Mostly, though, you could hear it in Leyland’s voice afterward, as he described the emotion in the clubhouse before the game, and his determination to do right by Rivera.
“It’s one of the toughest games I’ve ever had to manage,’’ he said. “This was really about trying to manipulate a ballgame so we got Mariano in there at the right time.”
Leyland said the decision to keep the team in the dugout was more spontaneous than planned, but it proved to be just right touch.
And it left Rivera, who said he had no idea that Leyland and the players were so invested in his last All-Star appearance, searching for the right words of appreciation. “I just wanted to pitch,” he said. “The rest was indescribable.”
As it turns out, that’s as good a word as any to describe Rivera himself.