NEW YORK — It was the perfect Mo-ment, beautiful and memorable. Storybook. Mark it down right now as one of the greatest in All-Star history.
One of the beauties of this timeless game is that you never know what you’re about to see, and here’s the thing about the Legend of Mariano Rivera, the 84th All-Star Game and the Mo-ment that anybody who watched will remember for the rest of their lives:
Nobody, not in their wildest dreams and rampant imaginations, saw this coming. Nobody could have seen it coming. This Midsummer Night’s Dream unfolded as if by divine intervention.
Who drew up the blueprint? Bernard The Natural Malamud? Robert Redford?
For one brilliant and starry night, Rivera was an eighth-inning pitcher. A set-up man. A guy who turned the ninth-inning over to Rangers closer Joe Nathan so he could preserve a 3-0 lead.
You can place Rivera’s dramatic eighth-inning entrance right there in the china cabinet next to a retiring Cal Ripken being shoved back over to shortstop one last nostalgic time by Alex Rodriguez at the start of the 2001 All-Star Game in Seattle.
You can place it on the mantel next to Ted Williams in a wheelchair during the pre-game ceremony at the 1999 game in Boston, surrounded by star-struck All-Stars and love.
The only thing certain going into this New York night was that if the AL had a late-innings lead, we would see Rivera on the mound to close it out.
“I’m still convinced he’s got the ninth inning,” Nathan said 45 minutes after this one had gone into the books.
“I was warming up in the seventh inning when the bullpen phone rang,” Twins closer Glen Perkins said. “I felt either I was going in or Nathan was. Then the bullpen coach said Mariano was going in.”
When Perkins sat down, Justin Masterson of the Indians and Chris Tillman of the Orioles wanted to know what was going on.
“Aren’t you going in?” they asked Perkins.
No, Perkins told them. Mariano is going in.
“They didn’t believe me,” Perkins said.
No one did.
Until Neil Diamond finished singing Sweet Caroline in the middle of the eighth inning, the bullpen door swung open and, as if heaven sent, here came Rivera.
As the next few several minutes laid themselves out as if they were the most perfect place setting at the most gorgeous dining room table, the emotions in CitiField rushed from the euphoric (“Sweeeeeet Caroline! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Good times never seemed so good, so good, so good!”) to the spine-tingling.
I still don’t even know how Diamond exited the field. I guess a trap door sprung, and he quickly was swallowed up by the earth. Who knows?
Suddenly, there Rivera was jogging in across the outfield. The AL and NL players remained in their dugouts. The sellout crowd of 45,186 roared. Cell-phone cameras burned into overdrive.
Rivera took the mound, all alone on the field.
He smiled. He beamed. He doffed his cap in appreciation to the crowd.
“It almost made me cry, too,” Rivera said. “I was close.
“It was amazing. A scene I will never forget.”
The AL players lined up in front of their dugout. They clapped. They cheered. A couple of them even aimed cell phones and recorded video.
Breathtaking is what it was.
“That is something I always will remember,” Tigers starter Justin Verlander said. “Oh, my God. I had tears in my eyes. So special.”
“We figured when he came out, we were going to do something,” Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter said. “We didn’t know what. … The moment was powerful.”
Also, organic and impromptu.
When did the AL players know they would wait several Mo-ments to take the field for the bottom of the eighth?
“Not until it happened,” Verlander said.
It was made even better by a snappy 1-2-3 inning. Sorry, NLers. On this night, you were Russia back in the Cold War. Outside of Mets fans and maybe a handful of wives and girlfriends, nobody could have been rooting for you.
Rivera induced a 4-3 ground ball from Jean Segura. Got Allen Craig to fly to left — a hard-hit ball that nevertheless found Alex Gordon’s glove. Got a 6-3 ground ball from Carlos Gomez.
Now. About that eighth inning. …
“Fans, media, players, everybody in baseball wants Mariano Rivera to get the save tonight,” Hunter was saying before the game.
He added: “If we’re down a run, if it’s a tied game, we’re going to fight to get the lead to get this man into the game.”
But what nagged manager Jim Leyland was this: What if the NL scored four runs in the bottom of the eighth … and there was no bottom of the ninth? This game couldn’t pass without Rivera pitching.
So back up for a moment to this: What if that 3-0 AL lead started to erode in the eighth with, say, Nathan on the mound? Then what? Leyland would scramble to the mound in a 3-2 or 3-3 game with, say, two runners aboard and summon Rivera?
There would have been no Mo-ment.
And that would have been unforgiveable.
There were those a few weeks ago who were calling for Rivera to start this game.
There were plenty of ways this game could have gone.
It wound up going the only way that it should have gone. And it is moments like these that are the answer to this question: Is the All-Star Game really even relevant anymore? Hell, yes.
The AL players were like giddy schoolkids all night long.
Leyland asked Hunter to deliver a motivational pre-game speech, which he did. And then Hunter demanded that Rivera make a speech.
“He was talking about being a part of the festivities,” Verlander said, “how much he loved being a part of it with us. What class.”
“He was saying how blessed he was to be playing with us,” Perkins gushed. “When, collectively, we were thinking it was the other way around.”
“He could have talked about peanut butter and jelly and we all would have been like, ‘Yeah!’ ” Nathan said.
Rivera left the dugout for the bullpen in the fifth inning, and the AL relievers had the incredible fortune for the next two innings to savor their time with the greatest closer ever.
“You smell like an old guy,” Rivera teased Nathan, who, at 38, is second to Rivera among active save leaders at 328.
“What does that even mean?” Nathan shot back. “I smell like Old Spice?”
“No, more like Musk,” Rivera told Nathan.
Or, musty. Who knows? Nathan was floating.
“He was joking around, telling stories, having fun,” Perkins said. “Talking about guys he played with when he first came up, some stuff they did.”
It was a night none of them will ever forget.
“It was something to remember,” said Angels outfielder Mike Trout, who surely will be re-telling the story of this evening 15 or 20 years from now when he’s the graybeard at the All-Star Game.
“Historic occasion,” Orioles first baseman Chris Davis said.
For the ages, is what it was.
Nobody — not the 3,500 credentialed media, not the 50 or so players in uniform, nobody except Leyland and his staff — saw this one coming.
And it was perfect.
“You don’t know what can happen in the…”