Thursday, September 26, 2013

Mariano's Last Yankee Stadium Goodbye

One more time.
There will be a strange aura tonight in the Stadium of mystique and aura. At some point, around 9:45 or 10 PM, the Yankee Stadium loudspeaker will begin to blast "Enter Sandman", the bullpen door will open, and Mariano Rivera will jog in from the bullpen for the last time.

One would hope that Mariano enters the game in a save situation, but it really doesn't matter. Everyone, maybe even the Tampa Bay Rays, wants to see him out on the Yankee Stadium mound one last time.

I also wonder if this could be his last appearance, period. With the team eliminated from playoff contention could Mariano just be a spectator in Houston this weekend? Or could he put on a fielder's glove and stand in centerfield during the game as he has always wanted to. I actually hope he doesn't, but if it's something he really wants, you must fulfill his request.

Mariano Rivera is one of those players; Derek Jeter is another, which you will talk about for generations to come.  Just as older generations have talked about Mantle and Mays, Ruth and Gehrig, Cobb and Wagner, and others that came before us.

You'll talk about the Panamanian pitcher that didn’t look like anything special, but suddenly became a powder keg.   The two and four seam fastballs thrown as a set up man for John Wetteland when the Yankees returned to glory in 1996, and then the cutter, Rivera’s “gift from God”, that made him the greatest post-season pitcher of all time. More World Series rings handed out in 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2009 thanks in large part to one remarkable athlete.

You'll even discuss the failures in 1997, 2001 and 2004, because they are part of Mariano's legacy. This isn't an episode of Yankees Classics, where no game lost is ever shown. They are a testament to #42’s resiliency and his ability to bounce back.

Of course the successes are more fun to reminisce about. There was the three inning performance as the Yankees rallied against the Red Sox to win Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. It was a performance that gave Aaron Boone the chance to be a hero in extra innings.

Flash back three years earlier to the final game of the 2000 Subway Series with the Mets. The Yankees are up by two, a man on third and slugger Mike Piazza is digging into the right-handed batter’s box as the potential tying run. As soon as the ball came off of Piazza’s bat and headed to deep centerfield you could see the concern on Mariano’s face. But quickly it turns to exaltation, leaping up and down after the ball settled in Bernie Williams' glove for the final out and the fourth championship in five years.

How about the first World Series sweep in 1998 on the road in San Diego? The Yankees up three games to none and 3-0 in the 9th inning of Game 4. A 6-4-3 double play erases a base runner and then pinch-hitter Mark Sweeney's one hopper to third is fielded cleanly by series MVP Scott Brosius and thrown across the diamond for the final out. Mariano drops to his knee, arms raised as the Yankees win their first championship with Mariano as the closer.

One year later it’s time for another sweep. The Yankees are up 4-1 in the 9th inning of Game 4. Brian Jordan starts things with a long at-bat that ends with a comebacker to Mariano for the first out. Ryan Klesko has another one of his bats sawed off as he can barely lift the ball into the air for an easy second out. Then it is Keith Lockhart hitting one high in the air and into Chad Curtis’s glove in left field. The Yankees have the second of back-to-back-to-back championships and have won 10 straight World Series games.

14 years later, the first season in the new Yankee Stadium, the Yankees return to the Series for the first time since 2001. It's Game 6; the Yankees lead the series 3-2 and the game 7-3.  Joe Girardi goes to Mariano with one out in the 8th. Jayson Werth flails at strike three. Future teammate Raul Ibanez loses a splintered bat, but later reaches with a double. No matter, Pedro Feliz flies out.

Pinch-hitter Matt Stairs lines out to Derek Jeter to start the 9th. Then a rarity, Carlos Ruiz draws a walk. Then the non-rarities- Jimmy Rollins flies out and Shane Victorino hits a series ending grounder to Robbie Cano. The team has its first celebration in nine years and a fifth ring for Mariano, Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada.

That is the legacy of Mariano Rivera, the baseball player. Those are the moments we will all reflect on for regular and post-seasons to come. When we’re bundled up during the winter, wishing Spring Training was near. When new closers put the pinstripes on and hope to have just a smidgen of #42's success.

There will be more championships down the line, of that I have no doubt, but there will never be another Mariano Rivera confidently delivering the final pitch to seal the victory.
Thank you for everything Mariano.

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