As the Yankees bats went quickly and quietly into the eighth inning, the moment the sellout crowd of 48,675 fans had been anticipating all night finally happened.
The bullpen gate swung open, Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blared and Mariano Rivera casually ran to the mound.
Except that it was not like any of his previous 575 appearances at two versions of Yankee Stadium.
It was the last one that Rivera would make in front of Yankees fans and it was the highlight of a 4-0 loss to the Rays.
“Definitely, definitely,” Rivera said when asked if he was emotional. “Thank God [teammates Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte] came out. It was difficult. After the eighth inning, I knew I was going back for the last time. It was totally a different feeling, something I never felt before. I don’t know how I got those two guys out. It was amazing. I was trying to talk; I don’t know what I was trying to do.”
The only item relevant in the box score was the numbers for Rivera’s final appearance: 1 1/3 innings, zero hits, 13 pitches and one loud ovation after another.
Rivera’s Yankee Stadium career ended after Yunel Escobar popped up for the second out of the ninth.
After getting that out longtime teammates Pettitte and Jeter came out to the mound and shared an embrace with Rivera. Rivera exited the mound with tears in his eyes, tipped his cap to the crowd and accepted hugs from his teammates.
As fans chanted, “We want Mo,” he sprinted out of the dugout, tipped his cap and turned toward the crowd to express his appreciation for their support. Then he headed back in the dugout and the game resumed. [embedgallery id=227140]
Before the emotional scene in the ninth, the anticipation was building all night.
At 9:18 p.m, Rivera began warming up for the final time. The sellout crowd took notice by chanting his name, while adding chants of “Please don’t go,” and when pitching coach Larry Rothchild sprinted out of the dugout to settle down Dellin Betances, the chants of “We want Mo” intensified.
Eight minutes later, manager Joe Girardi granted the wish of anyone in attendance and watching on TV. Rivera sprinted into a standing ovation and loud chants of “Mariano, Mariano” echoed throughout the stadium as hundreds of flashbulbs flickered.
He calmly recorded the final two outs of the eighth, getting Delmon Young on a fly ball to right field and Sam Fuld on a comebacker.
As he walked off the mound, he looked around to soak in the appreciation and accepted handshakes from teammates in the dugout while the Rays gave him a standing ovation from across the field.
Though Rivera’s outing was an easy one, it was a difficult time emotionally. In between the eighth and ninth, he retreated to the trainer’s room to gather his thoughts. His mind raced back to a career that began in Panama 23 years ago and all of the glorious moments that followed once he reached the majors in 1995.
“I had to regain my composure because I was in the training room,” Rivera said. “I was alone there with [assistant trainer] Mark [Littlefield] and I was trying to put some water on my arm and everything kind of [hit me]. All these flashbacks from the minor leagues to the big leagues, all the way to this moment.”
The same sequence repeated itself in the ninth as Rivera warmed up for his final inning that culminated in the hugs with Jeter and Pettitte.
“I didn’t say anything at first,” Pettitte said. “I didn’t expect for him to be quite so emotional. He just 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 and I think I was just telling him, ‘Man, you’ve just been so awesome,’ just sharing stuff with him that I’ve already told him and he knows. Just telling him that I appreciate him and love him, man. And it’s just been an honor to play alongside him. So that was what I was trying to say to him.”
Yankee manager Joe Girardi wasn’t sure if he would be able to do send out Jeter with him injured but plate umpire Laz Diaz conferred with crew chief Mike Winters. Little convincing was needed and Rivera was able to get properly sent off.
“There’s emotions,” Girardi said while struggling fight back tears. “I’ve been with Mo since ’96 and a lot of great times. He made my job fun, he made my job easy and more important he made all our lives better.”
The scene was so emotional that the Rays not only encouraged Pettitte to come out from across the field but they also stood on the top step at it unfolded even as their focus was on moving closer to the postseason.
“I’m really proud of how our players acknowledged the moment,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s the greatest closer ever. [It’s] hard to imagine anyone is ever going to come close to his records. It’s got to be what it was like to watch DiMaggio’s hitting streak, only longer.”
As the final out was recorded, Rivera sat alone in the dugout, playing with his hat and staring forward. After the final out, he walked to the mound, kicked the rubber a few times and, while cheers continued, he reached down and grabbed some dirt before conducting the on-field interview with the YES Network.
“I wanted to get some dirt and stay there for the last time knowing I’m going to be there no more, especially pitching, maybe throwing out first pitch, one year, one day” Rivera said. “That little time that I was there was special for me.”
Before the emotional ending, most of the fans in sections adjacent to the Yankee bullpen had their cameras fixated on Rivera as he softly began tossing. Fans in other sections began positioning themselves to get one last glance at Rivera loosening up.
Among the signs held up by fans was one reading “Thank You For a Monumental Career” with an emphasis on Mo. Another sign read, “Thanks Mo, dominant and dignified.” Another, “Thanks Mo for all the great memories, we love you.”
The Yankees played their first home game as a team eliminated from playoff contention since Oct. 3, 1993. That year they concluded an 88-win season and finished seven games behind the Blue Jays.
While the Yankees were starting a run of 21 straight winning seasons, Rivera was concluding his fourth season as a minor leaguer by making 12 starts on two levels of low Single-A ball.
It would be three years later that Rivera the reliever would emerge and a year after that the legend of Rivera the closer with the famed cut fastball would be born.
When it was over he spoke with emotion about being one of the greatest Yankees of all time while flanked by his wife and two kids. Rivera thanked the assembled media, even apologizing for not doing so Sunday, and then exited his last Yankee Stadium press conference as an active player to applause from the media that had chronicled him for the last 19 years.
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.