Rivera as close as it gets to baseball perfection

Rivera as close as it gets to baseball perfection
July 17, 2013, 1:00 am
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NEW YORK -- Sometimes, perfection can't be scripted.
If it could, then Mariano Rivera would have strolled out of the bullpen before the bottom of the ninth in the 84th annual All-Star Game Tuesday night at Citi Field, and not, as luck would have it, in the bottom of the eighth.
For much of the night, it seemed to be lining up like some sort of Hollywood production. The American League scratched out a run in the fourth and another in the fifth and then another in the eighth.
The stage was set. Rivera would handle the ninth, and like he had done 638 times during the regular season and 42 more times in the post-season, wrap things up nicely, securing the final three outs seemingly with ease.
But it wasn't perfect. American League manager Jim Leyland worried that if something happened in the bottom of the eighth and the National League took the lead, Rivera would never see the mound.
Think the tie game in Milwaukee in 2002 was scandalous? That would have been nothing had not Rivera pitched in this, his final All-Star appearance, in this, his final game.
So, taking no chances, Leyland went to Rivera for the bottom of the eighth.
"I wanted to make sure that it was a comfortable enough lead," said Leyland, "that I just couldn't take a chance. And I wanted to make sure I got out of (New York) alive."
When he came in from the bullpen, the American League position players remained in the dugout, letting Rivera have the stage to himself. For a few minutes, Rivera and catcher Sal Perez were the only players on the field.
"It was like a virus we all caught at the same time," said Torii Hunter of the decision to let Rivera soak in the applause by himself.
"We were all playing for one guy," said Oakland A's reliever Grant Balfour. "It's a team game, but we all want to see this guy go out on a high."
The gesture caught Rivera by surprised and nearly derailed his focus.
"When I got to the mound," said Rivera, "I see both sides, both teams in the dugout and it was amazing. It almost made me cry, too. I was close. It was amazing, a scene that I will never forget."
Of course, Rivera finished off the National League in 1-2-3 fashion, using his trademark cutter almost exclusively. Of course, this earned him MVP honors in the 3-0 A.L. victory.
That led to the most anti-climactic ninth inning ever, with Texas Rangers closer Joe Nathan given the unenviable task of following Rivera.
"He's obviously someone I've learned a ton from," said Nathan of Rivera. "I've learned how to treat people, how to be a ballplayer, how to do things the right way -- respect your teammates, respect your opponents, respect this game, don't take anything for granted."
Nathan joked that he's not sure Rivera is actually retiring, as he's still at the top of the game.
Indeed, regardless of age, he is the rare superstar going out on top. Think Jim Brown or Sandy Koufax. Except that Rivera did it far, far longer.
In a summer in which baseball celebrated so many young stars and so many first-time All-Star appearances, the old man stole the show. Somewhere along the line, the 84th All-Star Game became the Mariano Rivera Invitational.
Sure, there was Matt Harvey, getting the start for the National League in his own ballpark. But Harvey and all the others were merely the warm-up act.
It would be accomplishment enough for Rivera to be widely considered the greatest closer ever, which he most assuredly is.
But he's also the game's most respected player. Go ahead and try to find a single player who has something negative to say about Rivera.
Dustin Pedroia said of taking part in Rivera's All-Star farewell: "I had goosebumps."
Almost from the start of the season, the focus of this All-Star Game has been squarely on Rivera. It didn't seen to matter that the game would be held in the home ballpark of the Yankees' cross-town rival.
This would be Mo's last All-Star appearance and that storyline never disappeared.
Statistician and historian Bill Chuck began an on-line campaign for Rivera to start the game, as a means of honoring his career and ensuring that Rivera would get to pitch.
True to character, Rivera politely discouraged such talk, noting that he wasn't a starter, and as such, didn't belong starting the game.
On Tuesday, he didn't get to finish one either. But it was almost perfect anyway, just like Rivera himself.