By Vincent Z. Mercogliano
NEW YORK — For the record crowd of 45,186 at Citi Field on Tuesday – and the millions more watching on TV – it seemed inherently wrong for the greatest closer of all-time to pitch any inning but the ninth in his final All-Star game.
Mariano Rivera has been selected to 13 All-Star games in his career, and had never once pitched any inning other than the ninth. That all changed when he was used in the eighth inning of the American League’s 3-0 win over the National League on Tuesday, which seemed to rub many Yankees fans the wrong way. But while those fans scratched their heads and Twitter erupted, Rivera simply smiled and took it all in.
“Amazing,” the humble Rivera said when asked how he felt about the night. “I can’t describe it. I have no words for it. It’s been a wonderful night – the whole event.”
Rivera was honored throughout the night, with his American League teammates staying in their dugout when he took the mound to allow him to take in the overwhelming ovation from the crowd. In a strange turn of events, he pitched a perfect eighth inning to earn his first All-Star MVP award, taking AL manager Jim Leyland’s decision in stride.
“We talked right after batting practice, and he told me that he wanted to make sure that I pitched,” Rivera said. “He said that it depends on how the game goes, but I have to understand that if we were winning by one or two runs and I had the chance to pitch in the eighth, I would pitch in the eighth. For sure, he wanted to make sure that he pitched me. That’s the reason that I pitched the eighth inning, and not the ninth inning. You don’t know what can happen in the game of baseball. Anything can happen, and it happens quick… We won. That was the most important thing.”
The American League was holding a 3-0 lead entering the top of the eighth, and rather than risk having another pitcher blow Rivera’s chance for a save, Leyland opted to go with the safe bet.
“I’m not a motivational speaker, but my motivation for tonight is to work our fannies off to get to the ninth inning and bring in the greatest closer of all-time,” Leyland said. “I did lie a little bit by one inning, but for obvious reasons, I hope you all understand that. If something freaky would have happened in the eighth where they would have scored some runs and taken a lead, there possibly wouldn’t have been a ninth.”
Rivera’s teammates found it odd to see anyone but No. 42 pitching in the ninth – Joe Nathan of the Texas Rangers closed the game and said, “I think we all wanted to see him in the ninth, to be honest with you” – but Rivera deflected any negative attention by simply handling the situation with his usual grace and class.
Rather than harp on the questionable decision to pitch him in the eighth, Rivera was reflective about the respect that he had been shown by his peers and fans throughout the All-Star festivities.
“Everything has been a surprise this night,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting that at all. I wanted to come in and do my job. When I was crossing the field and got to the mound, listening first of all to the song that I pitch to in Yankee Stadium (Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’). I don’t hear that song in other stadiums, so that was great. And then when I got to the mound, I see both sides, both teams, on the top of the dugout cheering and applauding. It was amazing. It almost made me cry, too. That was close.”
Despite the game being played at the home field of the New York Mets, the longtime Yankees’ closer received the loudest ovation of the night. He is widely-regarded as the greatest closer in the history of the game with a record 638 career saves, but it’s his unassuming nature that has endeared him to fans and made him into one of the most well-liked players to ever wear a Yankee uniform.
That appreciation was on full display at Citi Field on Tuesday night, and Rivera – though uncomfortable in the spotlight – was able to take it all in.
In the end, that’s what this night was all about. No matter which inning he pitched.
“I think that the only one that would top this is the World Series,” he said at the podium with his wife and three children by his side. “Besides that, it has been outstanding; especially when you’re not expecting this. I wanted to pitch. I knew this would be my last one, and I wanted to enjoy… The rest was a plus. The rest was indescribable.”
Video by Vincent Z. Mercogliano/Photo by Associated Press