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Sunday, May 26, 2013
Last stop for the Mariano express

By Wallace Matthews
ESPNNewYork.com

Mariano Rivera is about to take his last ride on the Subway, which is about the only reason to get excited about this season's meeting between the Yankees and Mets, which begins Monday night at Citi Field and finishes up Thursday in the Bronx.

The Subway Series has fallen far since its inspired inception in 1997, when it came as a long-overdue midsummer diversion to New York baseball fans.

Mariano Rivera
Mariano Rivera grabbing a helmet so he can take an at-bat? That's the type of thing you see during a Subway Series.

For older fans, it was a reminder of the golden age of New York City baseball and the intense three-way rivalry among the Yankees, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants in the 1950s.

For the young'uns, it was a glimpse into a bygone era their parents might have told them about, some forgotten relic known as the Mayor's Trophy Game.

That first Subway Series started with a bang: A journeyman Mets left-hander named Dave Mlicki shut out the home team, and Andy Pettitte, 6-0 in 1997 before a raucous crowd in a sold-out Yankee Stadium, and the Yankees' catcher, Joe Girardi, had three of his team's nine hits. But now, with just about every Yankees regular on the disabled list and the Mets floundering, it barely registers as a whimper.

This season, there's no Derek Jeter, no Alex Rodriguez and no Roger Clemens to stir the Yankee hatred within the Mets. There's no Mike Piazza for Yankees fans to taunt. There's no Bobby Valentine to poke the media bear and no Joe Torre to pooh-pooh the whole thing as an unnecessary distraction.

It's now down from six games to four -- two at each ballpark -- and pushed out of its former choice weekend spot to a less-desirable midweek location. It will be interesting to see if the games sell out, or if the crowds are practically equally divided between crazed Yankees and Mets rooters.

Even Vernon Wells, a lifelong Yankees fan and, until this season, an observer from afar, has noticed the drop in intensity of this matchup over the years.

"I don't want to say it's died out," Wells said, "But it's just not as big as it used to be."

But for one more season, there is Mariano, who will retire after the season. And even if he doesn't get into a game over these next four days, the Series is richer for him being here.

As he has on his last visit to every visiting ballpark this season, he will conduct a private meet-and-greet with a group of ballpark employees. And as every visiting team that will not see him again has done all season, the Mets will honor him in a ceremony, on Tuesday night, which might be the only time the Citi Field crowd gets to see him on the field.

"They are good people there that I have a lot of sympathy with," Rivera said. "They're going out of their way to honor me, and I do respect that. I'm grateful for that, that they take the time, think about me and try to do something. I don't take it for granted."

But if you know the history of the Subway Series, then you should bet that Mariano Rivera will not only get into a game, but that it will be one to remember.

Rivera has been a central figure in some of the most memorable Subway Series games ever played. His overall numbers against the Mets are not great -- he is 4-3 with a 3.28 ERA and 20 saves in 22 opportunities over 33 career appearances -- and, in fact, his last appearance against the Mets was a blown save, when he allowed Ronny Paulino to tie a game with a ninth-inning single on July 3, 2011.

But Mo, of course, threw the last pitch of the 2000 World Series, the one Mike Piazza flied to center field to give the Yankees their 26th championship.

And he got his 500th save at the expense of the Mets, on June 28, 2009, at Citi Field, in the same game in which he picked up his only career RBI. Then again, who but the Mets could manage to walk a 39-year-old reliever -- with all of three major league at-bats to his name -- with the bases loaded?

Rivera also accomplished something that can never be topped, and probably not even duplicated, when he saved both ends of a day/night doubleheader, at both ballparks, on July 8, 2000.

The night Luis Castillo dropped a pop fly that would have ended the game with a Mets win, only to become a walk-off error as Mark Teixeira came around to score from first, who was the winning pitcher?

Why, Mariano Rivera.

"We played a lot of good games there, good games at our place and good games at their place," he said. "I remember playing home games there when [an expansion joint] fell at [the old] Yankee Stadium. It's good. It's like playing our division rivals; it's no different. For 16 years, it's no different."

So the possibility exists that although this rivalry is now about as potent as a pitcher of Kool-Aid, Mariano might still provide us with a reason to watch.

"It's more for the fans," Rivera said of the current state of the Subway Series. "They've become like another team in our division because we play them every year. It becomes another division game for us. We play them every year. It's good, no traveling. Twenty minutes travel, and we have an escort. Fans love it. I think they get good joy out of it."

Mariano Rivera has been a big part of that joy, no matter which team you were rooting for or which line you normally rode to which ballpark.

It's been a hell of a subway ride for Mariano Rivera, and now it's down to its last four stops.

All aboard!