In what will go down as one of the most touching moments the Yankees or baseball has ever produced on a ballfield (think Thurman Munson moment of silence in '79 or Lou Gehrig's "Luckiest Man" speech), Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher of all-time, was taken out of the game by Core Four teammates and friends Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter. Rivera buried his weeping face while embracing Pettitte while players from both teams and the fans applauded a man recognized every bit as much for his class and dignity as for his remarkable statistics.
If Rivera doesn't pitch in the final three games of the season in Houston, he will go down in history as having the lowest ERA of any pitcher who's ever lived. That is a remarkable achievement, but will clearly not be his legacy.
Instead, Rivera will be remembered for how he represented everything that is still right about the game. In an age of statistics, Rivera would be hard-pressed to tell you how many saves or wins he has this season. For him, it was all about being a good teammate and competing. To say he is a role model would be an understatement. He is a beacon of hope whose class and greatness offset the steroid cheats of a me-first generation of ballplayers.
As for life after Rivera, it's a sad prospect for the Yankees. When the Yankees resurrected a floundering franchise in the mid-90s with home-grown players like Jeter, Rivera, Pettitte, and Jorge Posada, they were a likable and admired team that would go on to win four championships in five years (1996-98, 2000). It would be nine years before they won another World Series, as they sold some of their soul by bringing in big-name steroid cheats like Jason Giambi and Alex Rodriguez. The team that was the gold standard in the late 90s (think also Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, David Cone, Jimmy Key, etc) for class and winning championships had transformed into a team without much chemistry and a penchant for first and second round playoff eliminations.
And that's what made last night so sad. Pettitte will join Rivera in retirement on Sunday, and Jeter will likely be a season or two at best away from walking away from the game himself.
And for the rest of baseball, it loses it's villain, it's Darth Vader. After 20 years, it's time for the Bronx Bombers to rebuild. It's probably time to let Robinson Cano get his 305 million dollars in LA, and Curtis Granderson his 15 mill a year elsewhere. And it's probably a good time to let manager Joe Girardi go home to pilot the Chicago Cubs--the best job in baseball.
This generation of Yankee fans, much in the same way the one in the Sixties bid adieu to Mickey Mantle to end that edition's dynasty, must now prepare themselves for some lean years. And as I have written before in this space, it's not a bad thing. You need some bitter to appreciate the sweet. Just remember how amazing it felt when Charlie Hayes caught the final out in Game Six of the 1996 World Series to end an 18 year championship drought and how it was somewhat more ho-hum after the fourth of this era in 2000. And remember how there were over 10,000 empty seats at Yankee Stadium during the Tigers playoff series last October. There was as much juice in the place as a dead battery.
The Yankees will be back. And new names will replace the old. It's what makes the grand old game so great.