NEW YORK -- In the press box, they always announce each pitcher's final box score line over the PA system: innings, hits, runs, earned runs, walks, strikeouts, hit by pitches, wild pitches, home runs. Then they repeat it, and if there were no runs, strikeouts or anything else of note, they just give the innings and note "zeros across." That's a neat-sounding construction, especially when applied to Mariano Rivera, as it has been hundreds of times over the years in ballparks across the country and was again at Tuesday night's All Star Game.
"Repeating: The final line on Rivera: One inning pitched, zeros across."
That is not exactly the final line on Rivera, not yet, but we're getting there, and Tuesday's game, a 3-0 win for the American League, was baseball's chance to say goodbye collectively, nationally, and under close to ideal circumstances.
Jim Leyland likes to play the role of crotchety old country grandpa -- "Talk loud, I don't hear good, I'm old," he said at his postgame press conference, and "It was kind of a stage to be honest with you -- I'm not used to that … I'm from a little hick town of 45 people, and I'm not used to that kind of stuff." But in fact, despite his protestations, he has plenty of showbiz instinct, hence his decision to bring in Rivera -- a player as closely associated with the ninth inning as any player has ever been associated with anything -- for the eighth.
This initially felt odd and not a little wrong, but you can see the logic plainly enough. Leyland knew he needed not only to pitch Rivera, but to give him a proper, special moment; if the American League were to blow its 3-0 lead in the eighth under the care of someone less infallible, there might have been no ninth inning at all, and so no Rivera. However small a town Jim Leyland grew up in, he knew that would never do.
One might argue - I, in fact, will argue - that with the league's very best relievers stocking his bullpen, Leyland could have rolled the dice on their ability to preserve a three-run lead for a single inning. (If putting five relievers on his Final Vote ballot on top of the six already on his roster, wasn't enough of an indication that Leyland is haunted by the Tigers' bullpen issues, this failure to believe that a three-run lead could reliably survive one inning indicates that he's more traumatized than I realized). And, of course, Rivera could have been brought in if anyone reached base, or even after the lead was gone. But then he would not have had his bright, spotlighted moment in quite the same way. And ultimately, though it is the nature of baseball fans to quibble obsessively over the details, it's silly to dwell on the wrongness of the inning over the beauty of the moment.
Leyland also said that the decision to have all the other players from both teams (except catcher Salvador Perez) stay in the dugout, while Rivera warmed up alone -- soaking up "Enter Sandman" and the cheers of the crowd, emotional and touched -- was a spontaneous one. (I didn't entirely believe him at first, but Torii Hunter confirmed it.)
"It felt so weird," said Rivera afterwards, clearly touched. "I didn't know how to act. At that moment, I didn't know what to do." Safe to say, he figured it out, doing what he's been doing for close to two decades now, putting up those zeros.
"Everything has been a surprise tonight," he said. "And when I get to the mound, I see both sides, both teams in the dugout, and it was amazing, a scene that I will never forget."
Not so very long ago, Rivera could have had a two-inning save -- a way to make sure he got in the game, and to get him his usual ninth-inning spot too. But those days are largely over. It's been years since Rivera was regularly used for two innings at a time, except perhaps in the most desperate extra-inning games. Joe Girardi might have driven to Queens to throw himself in front of the mound at the mere suggestion (particularly with his other prized asset, Robinson Cano, out of the game in the first inning with a contusion from a Matt Harvey fastball). It often seems that Mariano hasn't lost so much as a step -- that he probably could pitch forever, if he felt like it. But he says otherwise.
"The bullets are getting short," said Rivera.
It is possible to overhype just about anything, even Mariano Rivera, and a few of our more cynical readers may be rolling their eyes at the thought that we're only halfway through the farewell tour. That's somewhat understandable, but this will be over soon enough. And we're unlikely to see anything quite like it again.
There were other nice moments in the game -- Matt Harvey working out of a jam and showing off his stuff in front of the home crowd, a nifty Manny Machado play at third, and perhaps most majestic of all, a Prince Fielder triple -- but just as you know exactly what someone is referencing when they bring up "The Cal Ripken All-Star Game," we now have "The Mariano Rivera All Star Game." He has 13 All-Star appearances, in fact. But everyone will know what you mean.