NEW YORK -- So this was how it ended for the great Mariano Rivera, after all these years and all these magical All-Star moments.
With a hold?
On a night that was all about him, a night when his team's only mission was to grab a lead and get the ball to Mariano the Great, it's hard to believe that this was how it ended:
With "Enter Sandman" playing. With the greatest closer of all time jogging toward the center of an empty diamond. With two dugouts full of marquee players standing and applauding. With a 3-0 lead in his trusty hands. With a script that would have been exactly the way he would have written it, except for one messy detail.
It was all going down in the eighth inning?
How strange, how surreal was that?
OK, I'll admit that, on almost every level, this was a scene that was, in Rivera's words, "beautiful" and "wonderful" and "amazing." No matter the setting, no matter the inning in which his grand All-Star Game finale unfolded Tuesday, this will be an evening that Rivera will carry with him forever.
The emotion, the ovation, the memories will always feel real and special. No denying that.
But there's also no denying it was, frankly, kind of weird, even for the manager who decided he "had no choice" but to bring in the star of this show when he did, in an inning that felt like the wrong inning even to him.
"If anybody ever messed up Mariano Rivera," Jim Leyland would admit later, "I can lay claim to that."
So what the heck was going on here? How did the manager of the American League wind up with Rivera setting up for Joe Nathan to finish up a 3-0 win Tuesday night in the 84th All-Star Game?
He didn't exactly plan it that way, Leyland conceded. His plan was to do what every AL manager has done for pretty much the past two decades: manage with the hope he could hand a lead to Mariano in the ninth.
But then he found himself with only a two-run lead heading into the top of the eighth. And he just couldn't take a chance on "something freaky" happening, Leyland said. He just couldn't allow this night to go by without the great Mariano Rivera getting a chance to pitch.
So Leyland dialed up the bullpen after the bottom of the seventh and shocked the world by uttering the fateful words: "Get Mariano up."
Twins closer Glen Perkins was warming up at the time. When the bullpen phone rang, he expected to hear that either he or Nathan was about to pitch the eighth. Instead, the message he heard was: "Mariano, you're in."
"So I sat back down," Perkins reported, "and guys said, 'Are you going in game?' And I said, 'No. Mariano is going in.' And they didn't believe me."
Hey, could you blame them? This was the ninth All-Star Game Rivera had pitched in. He had never entered any of them before the ninth -- until this game. The last time he had pitched the eighth and recorded a hold in any kind of game was Sept. 21, 2002, in a game saved by -- you can look this up -- Steve Karsay.
So you can rest assured that the shock waves reverberated through the American League's bullpen and dugout in much the same way they were rippling through the TV-watching rooms of every household in America.
"Our whole thing, the whole night, was to get him the lead and let him come in and close it out," Torii Hunter said. "And then he came in there in the eighth, and we were like, what was that? We did all this work for the eighth?"
Meanwhile, the man who saved this game, Nathan, confessed: "I didn't know I was getting the ninth until the ninth. I think we all wanted to see him in the ninth, to be honest with you. We wanted to hear 'Enter Sandman' in the ninth inning.
"The ninth is Mariano. The ninth is his inning."
But not on this night. Incredible.
"I wanted to make sure that it was a comfortable enough lead that I just couldn't take any chance," Leyland said. "You know, I'm probably not the most popular manager in baseball. But I wanted to make sure I got out of here alive tonight."
So he decided his No. 1 priority had to be to make absolutely, positively certain that Rivera pitched in this game. No matter what the score. No matter what the inning. No matter how much second-guessing it was going to inspire on every talk show in the hemisphere.
Luckily for him, the man of the hour is one of the most gracious human beings ever to play this sport. So even as the rest of us were scratching our heads and concluding that Leyland had out-thought himself on this one and nearly screwed up an awesome story, the one, the only Mariano Rivera was merely thanking his manager for letting him pitch.
Heck, of course he did.
"I have tremendous respect for this man," Rivera said of Leyland. "Jim represents baseball the way everybody should represent it."
The truth, though, is that it's Rivera who represents his sport with a level of class and dignity that stands alone in his profession. In his pregame speech to his AL teammates, he looked around a clubhouse filled with 18 first-time All-Stars and told them what an honor it was for him to play with them.
"And all we wanted to say," said Oakland closer Grant Balfour, "was, 'No, it's unbelievable for us to play with you.'"
There were many great players on the field Tuesday night. There are many great players in this sport. But there's only one Mariano.
"He's royalty in our eyes," Nathan said.
And that explains the scene at 10:50 p.m. on a magical New York evening -- when Rivera jogged in from center field and found himself in the middle of a baseball field that was otherwise devoid of human, baseball-player life.
That wasn't something his teammates planned in advance. It "just happened," Hunter said. "It was like a virus. It spread. It was perfect, man. You couldn't beat it. It wasn't planned. It was awesome."
For nearly four minutes, Rivera stood tall on a glittering diamond all his own. As his AL teammates stood and cheered. As the NL All-Stars followed their lead and did the same. As a packed ballpark poured its heart out. As cameras clicked. As flashes lit up the night.
He waved his cap in thanks, turning toward every corner of the ballpark to take it all in and let every cheering fan know what this meant to him. It was a beautiful slice of baseball life.
Even in the eighth inning.
"It was amazing," Rivera said. "It almost made me cry too. I was close. It was amazing, a scene that I will never forget."
To find himself out there on that field, all alone, "it felt so weird," he said. "Basically, I was there alone with my catcher. I [didn't] know how to act. … My God, it was beautiful. I had no words. I didn't expect that. I can't even describe that."
Even his teammates found themselves wiping the tears from their eyes. It may have been the "wrong" inning, but "it didn't hurt the moment," Nathan said. "It didn't matter, the inning. It could have been the first inning. It still would have been really, really special."
Eventually, his teammates ran out to join him. Eventually, he finished his warm-up pitches and did what he always does -- carve up another opposing lineup 1-2-3.
It was his ninth All-Star appearance. He allowed a runner to reach base in only three of them. And he made it through his career without ever allowing an earned run in an All-Star Game. Hey, of course he did. Only Mel Harder (13) has pitched more All-Star innings without allowing an earned run than the nine 0.00 innings Mariano has pitched.
So when it was over, Rivera had an All-Star MVP award to call his own -- the first closer ever to receive one, certainly the first guy ever to get one for a hold -- and a new 2014 Chevy Stingray.
He may have pitched the wrong inning, but he was still the right man in the right time in the right place. And he gave us an indelible moment to hold on to from an otherwise lackluster game.
"There's never been anyone like him, man," Hunter said. "So you'd better appreciate it. We won't see anybody like that ever again."