Mariano Rivera’s last appearance at Fenway Park was a doff of his cap to the fans and the Red Sox players who emotionally stood and applauded him, people who genuinely respected him for always being true to who and what he is, undeniably the finest player at his position in the history of the sport, arguably the most decent human being to grace the game in his lifetime.
He was once told of the words of John Grisham, who when explaining some of the rules of his magnificent baseball complex south of Charlottesville said, “there’s nothing wrong with civility.” Mariano loved that, rolled and repeated it, and lived his life accordingly. A couple of winters ago, he was a free agent and offered a three year, $45M contract by Theo Epstein, told his agent Fern Cuza that “it just wouldn’t be right to wear another uniform,” then insisted that he, Mariano, personally call Epstein to thank him and explain why it just would not be right.
The ceremony was a heartfelt outpouring from his rival players, his former minor league manager Brian Butterfield and, most of all, the fans, although the video board presentation was really about the Red Sox and Game Four of the 2004 ALCS, rather than about Rivera himself. But as it broke up and Clay Buchholz and Ivan Nova finished their bullpen warmups and the grounds crew prepared the field for his last game on Yawkey Way, the standing ovation was it, the Hub Fans’ bidding adieu.
Rivera would never get into the game, much less warm up. We knew before the weekend that we would never see Rivera and Derek Jeter play in the same game together, and as the 9-2 rout unfurled with moments like a Jarrod Saltalamacchia steal of home, Alex Rodriguez had to be replaced because of a pulled hamstring and even Mark Teixeira and Gardner were in other states, injured. Someone named Mike Zagurski became the 56th player to wear the pinstripes and, after losing six out of seven these two weekends to the Red Sox, the Yankees were 12 ½ games behind Boston and trailing Tampa Bay, Texas, Cleveland and Baltimore in the race for the final two wild card spots, which made the 2004 replay seem a piece of history, devoid of the passion it once held for New Englanders. Even the ARod booing seemed as tame as a St. Marks-Groton match.
As the season winds down to its final two weeks, the fairest way to look at these Yankees is that somehow they were still in the race despite lineups that wouldn’t have put Scranton in the International League finals. Hey, they still scared people. They hurt the Orioles chances. They played hard, really hard, testament to Joe Girardi, but also testament to what Mariano Rivera and Jeter and Andy Pettitte and those members of the freshman class of 1995 meant to sport’s greatest franchise for 19 seasons. OK, C.C. Sabathia looked like a shadow of his extraordinary self Saturday, but he never made an excuse, never skipped a start, and may finally be feeling the effects of throwing more innings and making more starts since 2001 than any pitcher other than Mark Buehrle.
Now, moving forward to what Jeter hopes and believes will be another season, no one knows. No one believes the New York Yankees really will try to stay below the $189M luxury tax threshold and, even if Rodriguez is suspended, will be held prisoner to the long-term contracts that now handcuff them even before they deal with this November’s free agent negotiations with Robinson Cano. Jeter will be 40. Ichiro Suzuki 40. Alfonso Soriano 39. If they re-sign Hiroki Kuroda, he will be 39. Pettitte could well retire. And after years of playing for the moment because they are the Yankees, the farm system has been overfished; one online publication listed catcher Gary Sanchez as one of the top five prospects in baseball, to which one really good veteran scout quipped, “he cannot catch,” a sentiment a Yankee coach reiterated this weekend.
Maybe they go out and win a bidding war for Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka and massive Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu, sign catcher Brian McCann and Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum and trade for Chase Headley and sweep the battle of the back pages and regenerate the passion of the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry.
As Joel Sherman of the New York Post pointed out, there was nothing this weekend that spoke of the future, only the past. While Butterfield and the Red Sox coaches spent hours working with 20 year old Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley and they continued the transition process for pitcher Allen Webster—who Sunday night threw 96.86 to 98.02 on the radar gun—Girardi kept wheeling out his bullpen trying to get Mariano one more save opportunity in Boston.
Anyone who grew up in New England and loves the game would have preferred to see Rivera, Jeter and Pettitte play in the same game one last time, but before the Yankees took to the Fenway field for what likely will be the last time in 2013, the fans could savor the realization that we have been blessed to have watched Rivera grace that field since 1995 and to have known one of the finest human beings we’ll ever meet in our lifetimes.
It was Mariano’s Night, and so the ARod vitriol drifted out to Boston Harbor. It was about Mariano, and the reminder that there is nothing wrong with civility.