Sam Mellinger

For Mariano Rivera, final All-Star Game is sublime

Updated: 2013-07-19T18:26:11Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

— The song he helped keep famous started with an empty baseball field. Mariano Rivera, the man who redefined the closer’s role, earned this moment. His peers gave it to him, waiting a few verses of “Enter Sandman” to join Rivera, until he stepped on the mound and waved back to a standing ovation.

This very well may have been the last national moment in one of the most remarkable careers in baseball history. And if you hadn’t seen Rivera pitch in a decade, you would have recognized him all the same. The cutter. The grace. The calm. A few more gray hairs is all, and fewer darker ones, that hairline being Father Time’s only mark on the game’s most ageless player.

Rivera pitched a perfect eighth inning in the American League’s 3-0 win in Tuesday’s All-Star Game. He says he’ll retire after this, his 19th season. His catcher was the Royals’ Salvador Perez, who was born the same year Rivera signed with the Yankees.

“Seriously, I got a little nervous,” Perez said. “You see him, coming to the mound, I said, ‘Wow, that’s unbelievable.’ His last All-Star Game. Mariano Rivera pitches, and I’m going to catch? Wow, that’s awesome.”

For a brief moment after the standing ovation, Rivera and Perez were the only men on the field. Perez came to the mound to talk about signs. I’m easy to catch, he remembers Rivera saying. Just cutters. You call it inside or outside.

Rivera’s second out was a line drive to left field, hit right at the Royals’ Alex Gordon. He got a bad read on it, came in a step, then rushed back.

“I was going to dive, do anything I could to catch that ball,” Gordon said. “Just for Mariano.”

When the inning ended, Perez again came toward Rivera. This time, though, there were no questions. Just a first-time All-Star telling a 13-time All-Star how much that moment meant to him. I feel so happy for you, Perez told him, and: Thank you.

Rivera is going out mostly the same way we’ve come to know him —wiry, sleek, and almost exclusively throwing a devastating cut fastball that the world’s best hitters can’t touch even when they know what’s coming.

His Yankees are in fourth place, their lineup decimated by injuries. Everyone here understands this might’ve been his last time pitching with every eye in the sport on him. They wanted this moment to be special, especially with the game in this city.

Red Sox slugger David Ortiz said it might be 100 years before we see another Rivera. Robinson Cano, who signed with the Yankees the same year Rivera lost game seven of the World Series to the Diamondbacks, stuck around even after leaving the game because of an injury to see Rivera pitch in one more All-Star Game.

Short of the last out of the World Series, this will make for a fine last memory for many baseball fans. So much better than the alternative. You remember the alternative. For a moment, it looked as if baseball’s last view of Rivera in uniform would be him crumpled on the Kauffman Stadium warning track with a torn knee. He had been shagging fly balls that day last year, not because he had to but because he wanted to.

He was nearly 43 then, and what professional athlete returns from major knee surgery at that age?

Rivera wasn’t sure at first, but quickly started telling friends he wanted to go out on his own terms. By his own choice. Not carried off before some game in Kansas City.

So Rivera made one more story they’ll tell at his Hall of Fame induction in five years. He worked his way back, ahead of doctors’ predictions, and saved the Yankees’ first chance of the season.

He is, more or less, the same pitcher he’s always been. That cut fastball is a few miles per hour slower, but baseball’s Pitch f/x data shows he’s making up for it with more movement. Incredibly, Rivera’s strikeout rate (8.4 per nine innings), walk rate (1.8), ERA (1.83) and saves (30 in 32 chances) are all better than his career numbers.

Rivera broke into the big leagues as a starting pitcher in 1995, just after the last players’ strike. He is baseball’s last No. 42, grandfathered in before the sport retired Jackie Robinson’s number. He discovered that cutter by accident — “a gift from God,” he has said many times — while playing catch with a teammate and his game was never quite the same.

He spawned may copycats around all levels of baseball, but nobody can make the ball dive like Rivera. His consistent dominance, famous work ethic and relentless class have made him this generation’s most respected player.

This year — and this is unprecedented, as far as anyone in baseball can tell — he’s meeting with a selected group of fans or community leaders at the beginning of every new road series. In Kansas City, he heard about a Little Leaguer who pitched through chemotherapy treatments for cancer. In Minnesota, they gave him a rocking chair made up of bats he shattered with that cutter.

Baseball’s All-Star Game is a strange thing. It’s the best of any of the four sports’ games, but still struggles for relevancy. Bud Selig tied home-field advantage for the World Series to the game, which is more logical than the previous (alternating) system, but still leaves players like Andrew McCutchen saying things like “I don’t think it carries weight for anyone.”

Here, though, was a genuine moment. A real one, during a game — not the booing of Robinson Cano or even Josh Hamilton’s ridiculous run in the Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium five years ago.

Sports don’t always happen like you hope, of course. You don’t always get the moment you want. When it happens, you don’t want to forget.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow him at Twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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