In an emotional day at Yankee Stadium – Mariano Rivera, baseball's greatest modern closer, was honored by his organization, teammates past and present, and of course, his fans, for 19 years of service we will never see the likes of again.
Despite all of the pomp and circumstance – including a live version of his theme tune, Enter Sandman, from Metallica – the game did not end in a way we've grown accustomed to seeing during this Yankees dynasty of five World Series titles, seven pennants and 17 playoff appearances. Mo did his job, breaking bats while keeping his team close to the visiting San Francisco Giants, but the home team went quietly in a potentially season crushing 2-1 defeat. There was no adding to his record 652 regular season saves, and New York's hopes of a playoff spot fading. Chances are that Rivera and the also retiring Andy Pettitte have seen the last of the playoffs.
New York also honored Jackie Robinson, whose number 42 was retired in 1997 throughout baseball, in tribute to the Brooklyn Dodgers infielder who broke the sports color line 50 years earlier. Rivera, who was permitted to keep wearing 42 until retirement, was joined in Monument Park by Rachel Robinson, Jackie's wife, who unveiled the first non-Yankee plaque to appear on the hallowed ground. Said Rivera:
"It's a great pleasure and honor for me to be the last Major League Baseball player to ever wear Number 42. Even though I didn't meet him, he has been a hero and inspiration for me. I thank Mr. Jackie Robinson for that."
There were plenty of gifts for Mo, just as there have been all season long during his farewell tour. Somewhere is a warehouse full of items that range from a sand sculpture in his image to bronzed broken bats to fishing rods, rocking chairs, guitars and paintings - to name just a few. The fans got gifts as well, including a Mariano Rivera bobblehead doll, soon to appear on Ebay if it hasn't already, on what New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proclaimed to be "Mariano Rivera Day".
Rivera's statistics show why he is so acclaimed: The 19 seasons with one team stands out, as does a lifetime ERA of 2.21, and of course, that save total. Then there's his postseason record, which more or less adds two additional seasons to his career. In the playoffs his ERA is 0.60, a number so good that there's no adjective strong enough to adequately describe it. How much better was Rivera and his virtually unstoppable cut fastball when compared to other relievers in the game? Well, let's use WAR to try and shed some light on that question. Wins Above Replacement is "an attempt by the sabermetric baseball community to summarize a player's total contributions to their team in one statistic." Consider this - Trevor Hoffman, who was the all-time save leader before being passed by Rivera, has a career WAR total of 28. Rivera's is 56.3.
Now Rivera and the Yankees are getting set to move on, with Derek Jeter being the last active member of the "core four" (Pettitte and Jorge Posada being the other two), players who fueled a baseball dynasty. In the coming seasons, New York and their fans will re-learn the hard way what they already know - Mariano Rivera is irreplaceable.
And so fans walked out of the new Yankee Stadium knowing that a piece of baseball history is nearly behind them, but not before witnessing Rivera get the type of treatment that other legends have received on River Avenue - Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and others had their day in the sun, having their numbers retired inside Monument Park, the place where franchise cornerstones are permanently honored.
Five Yankee Days
The Sultan of Swat was in bad shape when he returned to the house that he built on 27 April 1947, some 13 years after leaving the Bronx where he hit 659 of his career 714 home runs. The slugger who started his franchise on the road to 27 World Series titles was saddled with throat cancer as he spoke to a crowd of over 58,000, looking nothing like the robust figure whose emergence helped save the sport following the 1919 Black Sox gambling scandal. Ruth's famed number three was retired for all time, with The Babe managing enough strength to speak to the crowd, capping his short speech by saying "There's been so many lovely things said about me, I'm glad I had the opportunity to thank everybody. Thank you.". Ruth died in August of the following year, and some 50,000 fans lined up for hours to catch a glimpse of the departed icon.
Just as famous as the the 2,130 consecutive games which the Iron Horse played is the speech he made on Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day on 4 July 1939. Months earlier, Gehrig has been playing first base from the Yankees while putting up some of the worst numbers of his Hall-of-Fame career, one in which he hit 493 home runs and hit .340 lifetime. In June of '39, on his 36th birthday, baseball fans found out why - he'd been diagnosed with ALS, a neurological disease that now bears his name in the United States. With Gehrig so weak that he could not hold on to the many gifts given him on the day his number four was retired, Gehrig famously told the crowd:
"Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn't consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I'm lucky. Who wouldn't consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball's greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I'm lucky.
When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift — that's something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies — that's something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter — that's something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body — it's a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed — that's the finest I know.
So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for. Thank you."
Legions of fans grew up idolizing The Mick, a native Oklahoman who wore number seven in center field during the golden era of baseball in New York. There was a good reason why the switch-hitting Mantle was so revered, why Billy Crystal frequently recalls the importance of a player who made the transition from another Yankee icon and Hall-of-Famer, Joe DiMaggio, seamless. Mantle was a force, hitting some of the longest home runs in history, 536 overall, during a stretch in which the Yankees won seven World Series titles along with 12 American League pennants. Mantle hit a record 18 home runs during the Fall Classic, won three MVP awards, and was an all-star on new fewer than 16 occasions. On June 8th 1969, Mantle joined Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio as the only Yankees then to have their numbers retired. A black mark on the day - Roger Maris, disliked by the fans because he, not the beloved Mantle, broke Ruth's single-season home run record of 60 in 1961, was booed when his name was mentioned during introductions.
That Thurman Munson was the first Yankee Captain since Lou Gehrig tells you a lot about how important the catcher was to New York, and why his death at age 31 is seen as one of the more tragic events in franchise history. Munson won an MVP award in 1976, World Series titles in 1977 and 1978, and was a seven-time all-star during an 11 season career. On 2 August 1979, Munson crashed in a small private aircraft while practicing takeoffs and landings in his native Ohio, and three days later, his entire team was present at his funeral. On 6 August, his number 15 was retired during a solemn pre-game ceremony at Yankee Stadium before their game with the Baltimore Orioles. Munson was the first catcher since Bill Dickey, another Yankee backstop, to hit .300 and drive in 100 runs in three consecutive seasons.
Rizzuto was a shortstop for New York between 1941 and 1956, missing three seasons with service in the second world war. Whether or not Rizzuto deserved to be elected into the Hall-of-Fame is still debated today - there's little doubt that he was helped along by winning five World Series titles, not to mention his tremendous fielding that must have saved buckets of runs for his pitchers. Even if you don't believe he belongs in Cooperstown, you can't argue with his Yankees broadcasting career, which was an awful lot of fun to watch - only The Scooter could get away with leaving games early to beat traffic. You also can't underestimate the power of his commercials for an loan outfit called "The Moneystore". Then there was his famed "Holy Cow!" broadcast calls, which the Yankees turned into reality, putting a halo on a cow and walking it onto the field during the 1985 ceremony during which his number 10 jersey was retired.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk