Mariano Rivera, having a great final season, could close out another All-Star Game

Rivera, 43, has donned the pinstripes for the

Rivera, 43, has donned the pinstripes for the Yankees his entire 19-year career. He's made 13 All-Star teams, won five AL Rolaids Relief Awards and five World Series championships. (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

Imagine it:

The American League has a lead going into the bottom of the ninth inning. Mariano Rivera, the best closer ever in his announced final season, is called upon to close the All-Star Game at Citi Field, in the city where he has spent his entire career.

The door to the bullpen opens, Rivera starts his trot to the mound and possibly "Enter Sandman'' blares over the loudspeakers, just as it has at Yankee Stadium for years.

Finally, the entire crowd -- in fact, the entire baseball world -- rises to its feet and collectively applauds Rivera, thanking him for everything he has brought to the game in the last 19 seasons.

"I sincerely hope I can give Mariano Rivera the ball in the ninth inning in New York,'' said Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who will be in charge of the American League All-Stars.

If life were like fiction, this is exactly what would happen Tuesday night when the Mets host baseball's Midsummer Classic: Rivera would be called upon to protect a one-run lead, it would take him maybe 12 pitches to retire three straight batters, the AL would secure home-field advantage in the World Series and his Yankees would use that to win the world championship in seven games -- with Rivera, of course, getting the save in Game 7.

Sounds a little far-fetched, right? But then, so does Rivera's entire season. He has come back from a torn ACL that many thought might spell the end of his storied career, announced that he was having one more go at it and produced a legitimate All-Star year with 29 saves in 31 chances and a 1.89 ERA. The first of those two blown saves was at Citi Field, so maybe Rivera has a little redemption on his mind for Tuesday night.

This season hasn't just been a victory lap for Rivera, it's been one of his best.

And despite all that, Rivera is adamant that he is going to walk away from the mound for good at the end of the season. And that, put in a historical perspective, may be his most impressive feat yet. Very few athletes walk away while they still are performing at their peak.

Michael Jordan couldn't do it, and it was hard to watch him look rather mortal in a Wizards uniform two years after retiring. Wayne Gretzky couldn't do it, though he made himself useful the last couple of years with the Rangers. Muhammad Ali famously hung on way too long, fighting all the way into the early 1980s.

"I never wanted to be seen as the guy they would drag in here and they had to strip the uniform from. That's not me,'' Rivera said in spring training after announcing that this indeed would be his last year.

"I want to be the guy that leaves the game and people say, 'You know what, this guy can still do it every day if he wants to do it.' ''

His teammates say there's no doubt that Rivera could keep playing if he wanted to.

"He's 43 years old and he's one of the best athletes I know,'' said fellow Yankees reliever David Robertson, whose locker is next to Rivera's. "He probably could go and play centerfield for another team right now if he wanted to. Nothing he does surprises me. Nothing. Except for the fact he's going out of the game the way he wants to.''

CC Sabathia said Rivera is smart enough to know that there is nothing else he needs to do in baseball.

"I think having five rings helps. He's not chasing anything,'' Sabathia said. "He's the all-time save leader. He's the greatest reliever in the history of the game, maybe one of the greatest pitchers ever.

"Mo has family and he has things he wants to do in his life. I understand where he is coming from. He has played the game for a long time. He doesn't owe us anything. It's what he decided, and I'm excited for him.''

Rivera, whose wife is a minister, has bought a church in New Rochelle and wants to focus his energies there. But before that happens, he still has a few more months in him, a few more chances to add to nearly two decades worth of memories.

There is no guarantee, of course, that he will pitch at all at Citi Field. Though he has been selected to the American League All-Star team 12 times, he has pitched in only eight games. His last appearance was 2009 at Busch Stadium, when he took the mound in the ninth inning with the AL leading 4-3.

Of course, he shut down the National League on 13 pitches, and the American League won its 12th consecutive All-Star Game.

It's a scenario that Leyland hopes to see again. "There's nothing I'd like more,'' he said, "than to be in a position to hand him the ball in the ninth.''

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