Cal Ripken went hitless in his final game. In fact, with some rare exceptions like Ted Williams, most baseball greats go out quietly. It isn’t a surprise, really, since most of the time they are retiring for the good reason they don’t have what it takes to be a good everyday player anymore.
Which is why last night’s All-Star Game was important. Much like with Ripken in 2001’s All-Star Game, it allowed us, as a baseball culture, to say goodbye to Mariano Rivera. Oh, he will pitch again, probably many times. There’s even a chance he could still have more chances to close out a game in October. But none of them will be as perfect as last night: there he stood, alone, just him and his catcher (the highly underrated Salvador Perez of the Royals) with both fans and opponents giving him a round of applause for the finest career a reliever has ever had.
And then, of course, he put down all three batters he faced, 1-2-3. No hits, runs or walks allowed.
Yes, it wasn’t perfect- he came out and pitched in the 8th inning, as Jim Leyland took an abundance of caution to make sure he played in the game (although I highly doubt that a bullpen that had Joe Nathan, Jesse Crain and Glen Perkins in it would have given up a 3-run lead). But in some ways, it was fitting, a passing of the torch from Rivera to Nathan and the other closers, young and old, who hold the role that Mariano has defined: the near-invincible 9th inning guy.
Of course, it is unlikely that we will see another player like Mariano again. The increased parity of baseball makes it unlikely that anybody will ever be able to have as many World Series saves, since it’s unlikely that a team will so dominate baseball again like the Yankees of the late 90s did. It’s also unlikely that anybody will ever be able to truly throw the cutter as well as Mariano Rivera– if they could, they’d probably have shown up by now. But the real reason why we won’t see another Rivera is simple: he, like Ripken, is a almost singular icon, not so much a man as he is an ideal.
“This is what we wish all our athletes could be like,” we say, “intimidating but friendly, ruthless on the field but charitable off it, respectful of the game’s history even as they make it themselves”
And although there may one day be another closer like that, perhaps one even more dominating than Rivera, it likely won’t matter, for our nostalgia will have made the last man to wear Number 42 just as untouchable in our minds as the most famous man to wear number 42.
And last night proved it, and gave fans of every team a chance to show it.