NEW YORK -- A roar started the second New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi tapped his right arm and the bullpen door opened with one out in the eighth inning, and Mariano Rivera began to jog toward the Yankee Stadium mound for what would be the last time he ever pitched a game in the Bronx.
But the real drama? That didn't come until the Yankees sprung an exquisite surprise on him after he'd retired the first two Tampa Bay Rays he faced in the ninth. Instead of Girardi, out came longtime teammates Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter to remove Rivera from the game. When the 43-year-old Rivera saw the two of them coming for him, he smiled a little, like he'd been had. And then the floodgates opened for him.
For 19 seasons, Rivera built a career as the best closer there ever was. But this -- these last few moments of his Bronx career -- represented a different sort of pressure. The man who made shutting down the opposition look automatic all these years now found himself having to save himself from himself -- and it was no use.
He quit fighting back the tears and let them flow.
"I don't know how I got those last few guys out. I don't know what I was doing," Rivera admitted after the game, adding not even a trip to the trainer's room to compose himself between the eighth and ninth did the trick. "Everything started hitting -- all the flashbacks, everything that led to this moment ... I was just bombarded with emotions.
"I knew this was the last time. Period."
After a long embrace with Pettitte that ended with Pettitte finally giving the sobbing Rivera a kiss on the head, Rivera moved on to hug Jeter for a while, too. Then he walked off, pausing just past the first-base foul line to doff his cap to the sellout crowd of 48,675 standing and cheering, and chanting his first name.
But unlike the roars that accompanied so many of his greatest moments or postseason saves, this particular ovation -- though loud and long -- wasn't as earsplitting. It seemed a bit muted, as if the poignancy and finality of the moment -- No more Mo? No more Mo -- blotted out any other thought.
"I've said it before, we've all grown up together," Jeter said, referring to how his days with Rivera and Pettitte stretch back to the early 1990s, when they were all farmhands in the Yanks' minor-league system. "It's too bad that good things have to come to an end."
Even before he left the field after stranding two runners he inherited and retiring all four batters he faced -- "Zeros across the board," the press box announcer said for Rivera one last time -- all the Yanks had moved to the top step of the dugout to join in the applause. Even the Rays, whose 4-0 win helped their pitched fight for a wild-card spot, forgot the game for a moment, too. That cynical old Seinfeld line that people root for the laundry, not the players, doesn't apply when a great like Rivera walks away. Even though Rivera tortured the Rays by converting 64 of 66 save chances against them in his career, the Tampa Bay players all came out of the dugout and stood there clapping in a show of homage for Rivera, too. Then they didn't immediately take the field for the Yanks' last at-bats until Pettitte, who is also retiring, took a curtain call as well.
"You're talking about two of the greatest Yankees that ever put on a uniform," Girardi said later, after he'd cried when he and Rivera clinched in a bear hug as he came off the field, and then got choked up numerous times again during his postgame press conference, stabbing away tears as he elaborated on how much Rivera meant to him.
"I'm going to miss him," the manager said.
Girardi said the idea of sending Pettitte and Jeter out to remove Rivera from the game was a spontaneous one that didn't strike him until just before the start of the ninth. Laughing at himself, Girardi said he went out to ask home plate umpire Laz Diaz if it was OK to send Pettitte and Jeter out because he never had "a player pull another player ... and one of them [Jeter] was on the DL." Diaz essentially said, "I see your point … " -- then summoned crew chief Mike Winters. He had the good sense to tell Girardi, "Go ahead."
Just like that, the Yankees' long history of indelible moments grew by one.
Rivera went the length of the Yanks' dugout after leaving the game to continue hugging his other teammates. When young Matt Daley (now a trivia question) got the last out for the Yanks, and the Rays retired them in the bottom of the ninth, Rivera stayed in the far corner of the dugout for a long, long time as Sinatra's "New York, New York" played, lingering as if he didn't want to leave but also didn't quite know what to do.
Finally, Rivera rose slowly, put his cap back on and it came to him. He started clambering up the dugout steps. The sea of photographers who had been snapping away parted. And what was left of the crowd -- realizing Rivera was coming back out now -- quit streaming up the aisles and began waiting to see what he'd do next.
Rivera walked back out to the mound. He toed the pitching rubber as he had so many times before. Then he pawed the dirt with his right foot, dropped to one knee and scooped up a fistful of it that he walked off with in his right hand.
Rivera later called the final trip to the mound "special to me."
"That time for me, alone there ... I just stayed there for the last time, knowing I'm not going to be there no more," Rivera said.
Rivera was asked to rate the entire night. He shook his head and said, "Amazing. Amazing ... Spectacular."
And it was. A perfect ending to an extraordinary man's remarkable career.