Every opponent strived to present Mariano Rivera with the perfect parting gift during his season-long farewell tour, but none measured up to the send-off the Yankees gave the closer Thursday night.
The Yankees already had gone to great lengths to honor Rivera during a pregame ceremony on Sunday, but all of that planning paled in comparison to the spontaneous idea Joe Girardi had before the ninth inning of the game against the Rays.
In his final appearance at Yankee Stadium, Rivera recorded the final two outs of the eighth inning. As he retreated to the trainers' room to compose himself while the Yankees batted, Girardi decided to have longtime teammates Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter come to the mound to remove Rivera in the ninth.
The only catch was that Girardi had no idea if it was permissible for players to make a pitching change. After conferring with the umpires before the top of the ninth, he got approval from crew chief Mike Winters.
Rivera retired the first two batters in the ninth, which was a major accomplishment considering the emotions swirling inside him.
"It was a different feeling,'' he said. "After the eighth inning, I knew I was going back for the last time. It was a totally different feeling. Something I had never felt before. I don't know how I got those two guys out in the ninth.''
Pettitte and Jeter then emerged from the dugout. Typically stoic, Rivera broke down when he embraced Pettitte. Rivera buried his head in Pettitte's shoulder and released a flood of emotions during a lengthy hug.
"He was weeping and I could feel him crying on me,'' Pettitte said. "There was so much emotion running through him. I felt like he didn't want to let go, so I just kept hugging him. I was going to go as long as he wanted to stay out there.''
After a hug with Jeter, Rivera left the Stadium mound for the final time. He stopped next to the No. 42 painted on the grass near the Yankees' dugout and acknowledged the Rays, who were giving him a standing ovation, and then he saluted the sellout crowd.
After hugging all of his coaches and teammates, Rivera was summoned for a curtain call to the delight of the 48,675 fans.
"The fans were there and I definitely appreciate that,'' Rivera said. "It was amazing. It was a great night.''
After the final out, Rivera returned to the mound one last time to retrieve a scoop of dirt.
"I wanted to get some dirt and just stay there for the last time,'' Rivera said. "Knowing that I'm not going to be there anymore, especially pitching. Maybe throwing out a first pitch one day, but competing, I won't be there anymore. That little time that I was there was special to me.''
Rivera was hardly the only one overcome by emotions. Girardi got choked up numerous times during his postgame news conference.
"There's emotions,'' Girardi said. "I've been with Mo since '96 and a lot of great times. He made my job fun. He made my job easy. But probably more important than that, he made all our lives better, and we'll miss him.''
With the Yankees already eliminated from postseason contention, the 4-0 loss to the Rays was insignificant. The same can't be said for one last unforgettable moment from Rivera.
"I was bombarded with emotions and feelings that I couldn't describe,'' he said. "Everything hit at that time. I knew that was the last time, period. I never felt like that before.''