NEW YORK -- Taken as a whole, the talent gathered Sunday at Yankee Stadium to celebrate the career of Mariano Rivera was astounding. There was Rivera himself, of course, the finest closer in baseball history. No one else really has a claim on the title, and no other position has so clear a leader.
"Where does he stand?" Joe Torre asked, in response to a question asking him to place the 43-year-old Rivera in historical baseball context. "There's nobody, I don't care what era you're talking about, there's nobody who's ever going to do what he's done as a closer. He's top of the game, as far as his position. He's an athlete. He's about as close to a regular player as you're going to find, coming out of the bullpen."
Torre was Rivera's manager for 12 glorious years, all of them ending with the Yankees in the playoffs, six of them with American League pennants, four with World Series trophies.
But Torre isn't Rivera's manager anymore, just as Jorge Posada is no longer his catcher, Bernie Williams no longer plays behind him in center field, and even Derek Jeter barely participated in the 2013 season, his career looking as if it's nearly over, too.
And that's ultimately the biggest takeaway from Sunday's 2-1 Yankees loss to the San Francisco Giants, which left New York four games back of a playoff spot with six to play. Rivera began his day surrounded by Hall of Famers and elite talent. He ended the day attempting, along with Andy Pettitte, to drag a Yankee team of J.R. Murphy, Mark Reynolds and (critically) Zoilo Almonte to the postseason.
The day started with such promise, even though the Yankees faced plenty long odds before losing. In a 51-minute ceremony, Rivera was feted with all kinds of gifts, from a personalized speaker box courtesy of Metallica (who also performed Rivera's entrance music, "Enter Sandman," in person), to a Waterford crystal replica of his glove, and a Mariano Rivera rocking chair -- you know, retirement ceremony stuff.
"The whole thing was special," Rivera said, his wife Clara by his side, when it was all over. "You know, I wasn't expecting something like that ... it was more than I even thought, because I didn't know anything. They didn't tell me anything."
Williams, Posada, David Cone, Jeff Nelson, Tino Martinez and Paul O'Neill all stood in front of folding chairs by the pitchers' mound. A Yankee Stadium sellout crowd -- not merely in name, but in every seat -- took their places early, stood throughout, and didn't seem to mind a bit that the scheduled 1:05 game ultimately began approximately 45 minutes late.
That's probably because Posada wasn't playing; J.R. Murphy was. Williams wasn't playing; a slumping Curtis Granderson was. In the role of Tino Martinez was Reynolds. In the role of Jeff Nelson was David Robertson, an excellent reliever worn down by overuse. The afternoon was a playbill filled with those understudy slips.
There was Pettitte, at least for a little while longer, who announced he'd be making his final Yankee Stadium start on Sunday -- not that he wanted to take the focus off of Rivera, but explicitly because Rivera had urged him to share the moment. Pettitte made the most of his chance, taking a no-hitter into the 6th inning and leaving to massive cheers in the 8th. There was a big hug from Derek Jeter, as if welcoming the 41-year-old lefty to the other side of the baseline, Moonlight Graham-style.
"It's difficult, because of seeing all the players, players that I've played with, all the people in the crowd that came back," manager Joe Girardi said when it was over, visibly slumping as he answered reporters' questions. Back in 1996, Rivera was dominant, Pettitte won 21 games, and Girardi was a stalwart defensive catcher superior to anyone on the Yankees now. Girardi is long since retired, while Rivera has kept his astonishing success going right to the conclusion of his career. And Pettitte will soon join him.
"It's that time of year," Girardi said. "That's who he is. That's who Andy Pettitte is." Or was, since it doesn't look like he'll be pitching at Yankee Stadium again.
Two batters after his exit, Pettitte actually became the losing pitcher, when Robertson allowed his inherited runner to score. Girardi went out to the mound, summoned Rivera, "Enter Sandman" playing for the second time, this time the more familiar recording.
It's worth pointing out just how much of a baseball move this was, as opposed to a nostalgia move. Rivera, in 2013, continued a trend that would be almost unbelievable, were Baseball-Reference.com not so easily accessible. In his 20's, Rivera was a great pitcher, with an ERA+ of 182. In his 30's, he was even better, with an ERA+ of 216. And in his 40's, he's been essentially as good, with an ERA+ of 214.
Now, in Rivera's final month in the major leagues at age 43, it's the other Yankees relievers who are worn down. Rivera, at 43, is the constant. So Girardi has asked him to one-up his neat trick of maintaining his dominance in his 40's, and actually turn back the clock with five multi-inning outings since Sept. 4.
Rivera's ERA this month? 2.13.
It wasn't Rivera who faltered on Mariano Rivera Day. Coming in with a runner on second and one out, Rivera struck out Ehire Adrianza, who'd homered earlier, and induced a soft flyout from Angel Pagan to end the 8th. The Yankees then put runners on second and third with nobody out, thanks to a single by Alex Rodriguez and a double by Robinson Cano, two talents also more at home on the great Yankees teams, and neither a particularly sure thing to be with the team next year, either.
Almonte, a 24-year-old outfielder, pinch-ran for Rodriguez and inexplicably broke toward home on a grounder. The Giants threw him out easily, turning second and third, nobody out, into first and second, one out.
"I think there's just a point, you're trying to do too much," Girardi said of Almonte. "It's just a bad read. It's just a young kid, trying to do too much."
Two batters later, the Yankees had failed to score. Back out came Rivera, and after he allowed a single to Juan Perez, he got Brandon Belt to hit a grounder right to Cano, who booted it. No problem. Asked now to get, effectively, seven outs, Rivera broke reigning National League MVP Buster Posey's bat to get one of them, and then managed to get Hunter Pence, who entered the game with a 1.189 OPS in September, to hit into a double play to end the inning.
There was no Yankee magic, though. It was the bottom of an uninspiring order that meekly ended things in the 9th, which is a shame, because had the Yankees tied it, Mariano Rivera was going to pitch the 10th.
Murphy, who made the final out, is under team control for 2014. Rivera will retire, and so will Pettitte. Rodriguez is facing a suspension that you might have heard about, and Cano is a free agent. Whether Jeter can stay healthy enough to play anymore is an open question. Posada and Williams are gone, Martinez and O'Neill are gone, and the Yankees still don't have comparable replacements for any of them. There may never be a replacement for Mariano Rivera.
So on Sunday, the plan was to just let Rivera keep on pitching. Even now, it was the best choice the Yankees had.
"He was going back out," Girardi said. "I think he had 12 pitches at the time, so he was gonna go back out. Mo's talked about, and we've talked about it, he's got nothing to save, in a sense. There is no next year, and it's just what he does. He gives you everything he has."