- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- The wishful thinking and one-more-year pleas are over. And Mariano Rivera told Yankees manager Joe Girardi to forget the arm-twisting talk that he hoped to have with him this winter.
As the Yankees gathered to celebrate and thank the 43-year-old Rivera for his unparalleled 19-year career as the best closer ever on Sunday afternoon, it was impossible to look at the other men who assembled on the field in the brilliant sunshine at the Stadium to honor him and avoid being reminded of something else besides Mo's greatness. With just a week left in the regular season, the Yankees officially just began the slow, poignant job of finally dimming the lights on an entire era that they've wanted to never end.
That was the hard-to-escape thought as Rivera made a long walk in from the center-field bullpen during Sunday's pregame ceremonies. Waiting for him by the pitcher's mound were Jorge Posada and Tino Martinez, Bernie Williams and Paul O'Neill, David Cone and Joe Torre. But all of them were dressed in street clothes and have grey in their hair. All of them are years removed from the same passage into retirement that Rivera and fellow "Core Four" member Andy Pettitte insisted Sunday that they are ready to begin when the season ends seven days from now. And there was something about all of them being thrown together again that admittedly made Torre "emotional."
"Baseball -- while you're doing it -- you think it's going to last forever," Torre said.
Torre is now 73 and has a hitch in his left knee. Pettitte, who pitched five innings of no-hit ball before being a hard-luck, 2-1 loser to the San Francisco Giants Sunday in the last home start of his career, is 41. When Mo and Pettitte go, only 39-year-old Derek Jeter will be left in uniform from those Yankees teams that won four World Series in five seasons in the late 1990s and a fifth ring with Rivera still starring as their closer in 2009. And Jeter's ability to soldier on without the others is far from assured, given his recurring leg and ankle problems (though nobody likes to acknowledge that, either -- least of all Jeter.)
It was easy to wonder what the Captain was thinking as he stood on the top step of the dugout to make sure he was the first to greet Pettitte with a long hug as he walked off the field.
First Posada. Then Pettitte. Then Mo, too?
On the stadium scoreboard before the game, there was a video of Jeter laughing while he told a story about how he and Rivera were in tears as rookies because they feared they'd be sent down to Triple-A on the same day and promised each other they'd just work to get back as soon as they could.
Jeter could've -- but didn't -- and now look at them. Both of them are first-ballot Hall of Famers.
Williams talked Sunday about the "perfect storm of circumstances" that brought all of them together back in the '90s and commended the Yanks' organization for "doing what it took to keep us together" longer than some other franchises might have. And Girardi, who played with Williams, too, and caught Rivera a decade before he wound up managing him, spoke movingly before the game about the class and professionalism that has distinguished Rivera as much as his nearly unhittable cut fastball and ability to withstand pressure.
Girardi recounted how hitters used to tell themselves, "Man, I want to be the one to get Mo. And …" Girardi said before pausing to laugh, "most of the time, they weren't."
Torre was reminded of a few Mo stories, too. Like the time Torre ordered Rivera to intentionally walk a hitter in the ninth and, after the game, Rivera came rapping on his office door to say, "Mr. T, I can get that guy out."
Laughing now, Torre admitted, "I never did that [move] again."
Which only reminded him of another story. Torre was managing the 2000 All-Star Game. After trying to make sure nearly everyone got a chance to play and churning through players, Torre feared it might backfire on him in the late innings. With the American League clinging to a mere one-run lead, Torre said he went up and down the dugout late urging the team to score a few more runs -- only to get a tap on the shoulder from Angels outfielder Darin Erstad.
"Who's pitching the ninth?" Erstad asked.
"Why, Mariano Rivera," Torre said.
"Then you won't need any more runs," Erstad smirked.
There are a million stories like that about Rivera. The themes are always the same: how he shut the door so often he seemed automatic and shortened games; how hitters often came up to the plate looking already defeated; how everyone in the ballpark knew Rivera was either going to throw a cut fastball or the sinking two-seamer he resorted to more and more late in his career.
"Two pitches. That was it," Posada said. "But you could tell the adjustments of certain hitters. … They'd come up to the plate, and they'd be using smaller bats. Or people would be using white bats all game. All of a sudden, now, the black bat was out. Some left-handers would stand farther out so the cutter wouldn't come in on their hands. There were a lot of adjustments that told me they were beaten."
Rivera will leave the game as baseball's all-time saves leader. There's a case to be made that he was the most dominant pitcher -- not just closer -- of his era. As his career has been funneling down to these precious few days, there's even been a revived debate about whether he's the greatest player of his generation, period. And that's saying something, considering he played in an era in which hitting records set by the likes of Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Roger Maris were all shattered.
"He has absolutely just dominated this game," Pettitte said.
"I don't think we'll ever see anyone like him again," Girardi added.
But Rivera has always left that kind of talk to someone else. He seemed happy, even buoyant, throughout the pregame ceremonies that lasted 50 minutes. Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, joined Rivera in Monument Park to help him unveil two plaques retiring his and Jackie's number. He endured an array of glowing testimonials. He was given an autographed guitar he'll probably never play, some framed photographs he'll probably never hang up and a rocking chair made out of baseball bats (all weirdly intact, rather than broken pieces from one of his cut fastballs). The band Metallica even turned up, as rumored, to play a live rendition of "Enter Sandman," his entrance song.
When Rivera himself had a chance to speak Sunday to the sellout crowd, he was intent on thanking everyone. He thanked his wife and three sons who were at his side; he thanked every teammate and member of the Yankees organization he's ever had; he thanked the president of his native Panama for being in the stands; he spoke of being grateful to the late George Steinbrenner for employing him ("I still miss him," Rivera said.) He even thanked his parents for, well, having him.
"I guarantee it was a great night, or day, or -- I don't know what it was -- but I guarantee you, it was a great day," Rivera said to growing laughter. "So, gracias."
Then the game began and everything felt the same as it ever has. Girardi asked Rivera to get a five-out save, and the manager admitted he would've sent him out for the top of the 10th, too, had the Yanks tied the game in the ninth. Asked later how he felt about that, Rivera, to the end, said what he always has, too.
"I wanted to be there for my team … I was ready for that."
It's nearly everyone else that's not ready to say goodbye.
Sunday's ceremony began to close not only the chapter on Mo, but on an era