As a first-time Old-Timer, Mariano Rivera felt like a rookie again. The crowd’s roars made him feel like a kid again. Most of all, his memorable afternoon made him powerfully and deeply feel like a Yankee again.
“I have had a lot of great moments in baseball, but my greatest moment in baseball was just wearing this uniform,” he said Sunday after pitching, hitting an inside-the-park home run and playing centerfield in his Old-Timers' Day game debut. “It wasn’t only on the field, it was putting this uniform on for 19 seasons. That’s what I believe. That’s what I think about the pinstripes. It’s legend. It’s majesty. It’s prestige. It’s all of that, and I was blessed that I wore this uniform for 19 years. To me, it was spectacular.”
This was a spectacular victory lap for his career, and a rite of passage on his way to the Hall of Fame. Rivera will be enshrined next month in Cooperstown as the first unanimous selection. His speech is almost done, he said, adding, “I can’t wait for that moment. I’ve been waiting patiently.”
He always enjoyed Old-Timers’ Day when he was an active player, as he used to sit at his locker and absorb stories from his Yankee predecessors. “I was here early for those games,” he said. Rivera enjoyed this one even more, retiring former teammate Paul O’Neill on a comebacker that he turned into a double play, drilling a shot to right-center and circling the bases, then ultimately retiring Luis Sojo to — appropriately for baseball’s greatest closer — finish the three-inning game.
For everybody in the park, Sunday was an occasion to recall Yankees history — and some history that almost happened. Rivera was a struggling but promising starting pitcher in 1995 when the Yankees came close to dealing him to Detroit for David Wells.
“Thank God they didn’t do it, huh? The Yankee gods wouldn’t let it happen,” Wells said. “I had heard about it. He was up and coming. They didn’t know what he was about ready to do in his career. It was a good decision. Bad for me because I would have come in a heartbeat. It was always a dream to play for the Yankees.”
Wells eventually got his wish, signing as a free agent on Christmas Eve of 1996. “I got my four years of glory,” he said before the Old-Timers’ game.
Reflections of glory were all over the Stadium Sunday:
Don Larsen, 89, received a sustained ovation for abandoning his wheelchair and taking the field on a walker before posing with fellow perfect-game throwers Wells and David Cone. Dr. Bobby Brown, 94, a cardiologist and former American League president, spoke of having been Joe DiMaggio’s teammate (“He didn’t talk to anybody a lot. He talked to me when I needed to be talked to,” he said). Hector Lopez attended his 53rd consecutive Old-Timers’ Day. Whitey Ford, 90, unable to attend because of his health, was saluted by the players and the crowd.
But mostly it was an occasion to celebrate the pitcher who was chagrined in May 1995 for being demoted to the minors along with a kid shortstop, Derek Jeter.
"That kind of cheer from the fans was amazing," Rivera said afterward. "They bring the child in you out again."
Fellow reliever Jeff Nelson said of Rivera, “Nothing ever bothered him.” He added, “He had flawless mechanics. He was one of the best athletes in baseball…He was probably our best outfielder if they had ever put him in the outfield.”
Lou Piniella, a 1977 and 1978 world champion Yankee who managed the Mariners against Rivera, said, “Well, listen, we knew from the seventh inning on and behind in the score, we had very little to no chance.”
Sojo, an opponent before he was a Rivera teammate, said, “We saw the cutter, the nasty one. Edgar Martinez, one of the best hitters I’ve ever seen, said, 'That’s an illegal pitch.’ ”
Rivera will officially enter baseball immortality July 21 upstate, but Sunday was a reminder that his baseball soul is and always will be in the Bronx. “I had a great time today,” he said. “Thank you.”