Mariano Rivera takes a curtain call after pitching for the final time at Yankee Stadium. (Charles Wenzelberg)
The first stirrings arrived at 9:18 p.m., the observant sectors of the crowd of 48,675 noticing a tall figure in the distant bullpen loosening his arms, the same ritual Mariano Rivera had conducted before each of his previous 1,114 appearances, shaking them like a couple of fire hoses.
The chant began a few seconds later.
By 9:20 he was throwing in earnest, and the press box announcer dutifully reported, “Joining Matt Daley in the Yankees bullpen …” and a few more thousand spectators fixed their glances on the mound out beyond the 385-foot sign in right-center field, beyond the red sign for New York Presbyterian.
The season, as a baseball poet once said, was already exhausted. The ballgame, No. 159, was rapidly spinning out of control for the Yankees, already down 2-0, Tampa runners scattered on the basepaths. In the first-base dugout, Joe Girardi frowned: What to do? He wanted to reserve the ninth inning for Rivera.
But nobody wanted to see him walk into an 8-0 blowout.
“It’s not hard to pick up the phone,” Girardi would say later, “and wonder who you’d want to call.”
It was 4-0 when Girardi hopped out of the dugout at last, two more men on base, only one out, the crowd about to boo poor Dellin Betances. But Girardi changed the mood. He was getting Betances, and he was pointing to the bullpen, and the thunder landed at once.
So that would be Mariano Rivera’s final uncredited save in The Bronx, saving an overmatched kid from wrath, reminding everyone that they’d come for a celebration. Soon Bob Sheppard’s preserved voice came tumbling out of the P.A. speakers: “COMING IN TO PITCH FOR THE YANKEES, NUMBER FORTY-TWOOOO …”
It was 9:27 p.m. There wasn’t one occupied seat in the entire house, and that included the Tampa Bay dugout, where all 44 men with “RAYS” across their jerseys were themselves standing, saluting, applauding. This game, this outcome, still mattered for them, still mattered to their playoff hopes.
The Yankees? Officially this was the first meaningless game played in the Bronx since Oct. 3, 1993, Yankees 2, Tigers 1. And yet somehow, suddenly, these next few moments felt as meaningful as any yet housed in the new yard. Delmon Young flied to left on the first pitch Rivera threw. Sam Fuld bounced back to Rivera a few seconds later.
One more jam crushed. One more inning closed.
One more to go. Or so it seemed.
The Yankees threatened in the bottom of the eighth but in keeping with their year, it was an idle threat. Some booed the futility out of a sense of duty and so nobody much noticed Girardi consulting the umpiring crew, letting them in on one of the great bursts of baseball inspiration ever. Rivera jogged to the mound.
Jose Lobaton bounced another one back to Rivera. On his 13th pitch + every one of which, duly noted by the big scoreboard in center field, was labeled: CUTTER — he ran one in on Yunel Escobar, and he popped it meekly to Robinson Cano. Four up. Four down. Perfect. Pristine.
And one more surprise.
Now, out from the dugout, out from a thousand shared memories, hundreds of shared victories, five shared championships, came Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte, both cloaked in blue hooded sweatshirts on this frosty fall night. This was Girardi’s scheme: Let Rivera’s longest contemporaries, his dearest comrades, take him back to the dugout with them.
It was a genius plan. The umpires, to their credit, agreed. The Rays, again, stood in front of their dugout and applauded wildly.
“Thank God they came out,” Rivera would say. “I’m not sure I would have made it on my own.”
Rivera — who famously collapsed in a puddle of tears and emotion on the mound across the street seconds after the Aaron Boone Homer won the ’03 ALCS — now fell into Pettitte’s arms, sobbing. Pettitte squeezed him.
“It’s been an honor to play alongside you,” Pettitte said, needing to say something before he lost it, too. Together, the three iconic Yankees returned to the dugout. And by then, Girardi was gone, too, the tough-guy skipper weeping openly and not minding even a little bit.
“He made my job fun,” Girardi would say. “He made my job easy. And he made all of our lives better.”
Later, Rivera would return to the mound one last time, grab a handful of dirt, take one final look around, enjoy one last roar from an adoring crowd. One last time, Rivera was reminded how much he meant to this game.
And also, tellingly, how much the game meant to him.