David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
BOSTON - If not for Twisted Sister, this tiny ballpark along Yawkey Way easily could have been mistaken for its bigger cousin in the Bronx when Mariano Rivera stepped through the bullpen gate Saturday.
Over the din of Dee Snider screaming, "We're not gonna take it!" -- evidently a late-inning rallying cry for the Red Sox -- growing applause could be heard as Rivera trotted through the outfield grass. By the time he approached the mound, it was a full standing ovation.
At Fenway Park. With the Red Sox losing. To the Yankees.
Think about that. It was like Apple throwing a surprise party for Samsung. Here were 37,601 citizens of Red Sox Nation, with a few exuberant New Yorkers mixed in, welcoming Rivera like a favorite son rather than a bitter enemy. The only thing missing was "Enter Sandman."
Not that he needed any musical cues to finish the job as effectively as has become expected of him during the past two decades. Only two hitters put the ball in play -- David Ortiz on a foul pop behind third base and Mike Carp with a bloop single to rightfield. Rivera struck out Jonny Gomes and Jarrod Saltalamacchia to nail down his 31st save in 33 chances and 12th straight at Fenway dating to 2007.
In a weird way, it felt as if Rivera gave everyone what they came to see -- or secretly hoped to. Maybe Red Sox Nation, with the team atop the American League East and still six games up on the Yankees, believed it could afford to give a tip of its cap on this late July afternoon to a long-admired combatant.
Should the Yankees overtake the Sox at any point during the next two months, or hang close enough to be a real threat, Rivera is not likely to get the same warm embrace at Fenway. But on this day, it was a grand gesture much appreciated by Rivera, who returned the sentiment the only way he knows how: by ending the game.
"I respect the organization, I respect the fans, and that's what I give back," Rivera said. "I play the game the way you should play it, and move on."
It wasn't the first time Rivera had received such an outpouring of affection at Fenway. Back in 2005, when the Yankees opened the season here, the crowd showered him with grateful applause during the pregame intros -- a public thank you for making the Red Sox's historic ALCS comeback a reality.
Rivera took it in stride then, responding with a wide smile and laugh before doffing his cap to the crowd. All in good fun, right?
As for Saturday, he didn't have time for a wave or a grin. Rivera's walk from bullpen to mound is a business trip, and he treated this the same way he always has. Even if it was different from any other he had known at Fenway.
"I have to stay focused, you know what I mean?" Rivera said. "I'm definitely going to hear it. But paying attention to it and hearing it are two different things. It's like an appreciation, I guess. But it's great they did that. To acknowledge that you've been there for so many years."
Of all those seasons, this could be among the most important for Rivera, and not just because of his farewell tour. With the Yankees' constant struggle to score more than a couple of runs, blowout wins are nonexistent, and that's what makes Rivera so essential.
Joe Girardi is always talking about how his club can't squander close games, and Saturday was the perfect script: Kuroda to Robertson to Rivera. Scratch for a lead, play solid defense, and wind up winning 2-0, 4-1 or 5-2.
For all the magic Rivera has provided this year, with his personal ballpark meet-and-greets right through Tuesday's amazing All-Star tribute at Citi Field, he alone can't be the catalyst for the Yankees.
He is the best closer ever, but he's not a savior. And moments like Saturday can't happen without the Yankees doing their part to get Rivera the ball with a lead. For one special evening at Fenway, everyone was thrilled the Yankees did.
"I think it's the class of the fans here," Girardi said. "I think they understand what Mo has done and what he's meant to the game."
Wherever he is. Even in Boston.