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Exit Sandman: The Perfect Sendoff for Mariano Rivera

If last night proved nothing else, it’s that there can be crying in baseball. And it can be great.

New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera

The Mariano Rivera Farewell Tour has been going strong all year long. Widely revered as one of the most likeable and respected players in the game, the best closer of all time has been recognized across baseball for his great career. There were numerous touching tributes, ceremonies, and gifts along the way. But one of the final stops on this ride, the last home game of the year, was also the most meaningful. And it couldn’t have been any more poetic.

With one out in the eighth inning, Yankees manager Joe Girardi called on the Sandman to clean up the mess created by Dellin Betances. As he had done hundreds of times over the last two decades, Rivera retired the next two batters to end the inning. After recording two more outs in the top half of the ninth, Girardi orchestrated theater that is worthy of a Tony Award.

Rivera deserved the right kind of sendoff at Yankee Stadium and, while finishing the ninth would have only been appropriate, it wouldn’t have given Yankee fans the proper chance to thank their Hall of Fame-bound closer. Taking him out with two outs allowed him to come off the field to a plenty-deserved standing ovation.

Girardi didn’t miss the opportunity, though, to make this his best bullpen management decision of a season in which there were many. Rather than head to the mound himself, he let Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter into the moment and had them make the change. It was perfect.

The trio of Rivera, Jeter, and Pettitte have been together for about 15 years and have been the embodiment of the Yankees of the 21st century. When Jeter said it was “time to go,” Rivera unleashed the kind of emotion that never appears on a pitcher’s mound. The tears that came were so honest and real. Pettitte’s shoulder became Rivera’s tissue box.

“I didn’t expect for him to be quite so emotional,” Pettitte told MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch. “He broke down and just gave me a bear hug, and I just bear-hugged him back. He was really crying. He was weeping. I could feel him crying on me.”

For a man who has instilled fear into batters for 19 years, this was one of the rare times he has ever seemed vulnerable and exposed. Instead of breaking bats, he was breaking down. If there was any ever doubt about how much baseball and being a Yankee means to him, it was all erased in that moment.

Rivera will leave the game as one of the few players who will truly be universally loved. There aren’t many Yankees who get a standing ovation in every stadium along the way, let alone Fenway Park.

Rivera’s Bronx goodbye was the culmination of a season of fun gifts and respectful appreciation from around the league. But this time, it was truly about him and in the place he called home with the people who loved him the most. It couldn’t have been any better.

And if last night proved nothing else, it’s that  there can be crying in baseball. And it can be great.

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