By Ernie Palladino
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They packed the place Sunday to bid a formal thanks to a retiring hero on Mariano Rivera Day before the 2-1 loss to the San Francisco Giants. It contained all the deserved fanfare: Metallica rocking out live his hard-rock theme, “Enter Sandman,” gifts galore, handshakes and hugs from old teammates like Bernie Williams and Tino Martinez and managers like Joe Torre and Joe Girardi.
They even gave him a rocking chair made out of baseball bats.
The organization retired his pinstriped No. 42 in front of universally retired Jackie Robinson’s wife, Rachel, ending Rivera’s grandfathered exemption and officially making him the last man ever to don those digits.
The Core 4 were there. Indeed, Andy Pettitte started the game, which incidentally was truly his last game in the Bronx. He was never mentioned, though any fan who paid attention over the past nearly two decades knew he was valued just as much as the street-clothed Jorge Posada and the uniformed Derek Jeter, the latter of whom may soon follow Rivera and Pettitte into the sunset. In another week, Rivera’s clock starts its five-year countdown to the Hall of Fame, inclusion in which the modest and all-business closer so richly deserves.
We saw yesterday, however, how some stars have more luster than others. Pettitte gave the Yanks plenty, especially as he blazed through Octobers to become the franchise’s all-time greatest postseason pitcher. His 19 playoff wins dwarfed by nine another left-hander of some repute, Whitey Ford. Indeed, Pettitte had a plethora more chances in the modern playoff structure.
Perhaps that works against Pettitte. There will be no Hall of Fame countdown for him. The only clock Andy Pettitte will have to watch is the one hanging from his kitchen wall. In the end, Pettitte should be remembered as a really, really good pitcher who fell a hair short of greatness.
The Yankees treated him appropriately enough. His career was one of a grinder, a guy who was occasionally brilliant, but who, in the balance, was a pitcher who kept his team in the game with well-placed serves at critical times. As invaluable as they are to their teams, those guys don’t generally get to Cooperstown unless they buy a ticket.
Add his PED issue and, well, you know how that goes. If anyone had contemplated throwing him a vote anyway, that eliminated the possibility.
So Pettitte got a mid-week press conference. Rivera received a 50-minute ceremony.
Pettitte, though, he did not go gently into that good Yankee Stadium night Sunday. He gave his fans a treat in a vintage performance, a wonderful going away present from him to his supporters. Five innings of no-hit ball. Seven innings of one-hit, one-run ball only because Ehire Adrianza took him deep in the sixth.
Pettitte deserved a storybook ending, but things do happen in this game. Pablo Sandoval’s leadoff double of a slider up in the strike zone in the eighth brought out Girardi, triggering a tremendous ovation. How nice it would have been if Pettitte could have taken his leave and allowed Rivera, the second part of a win/save combination that produced a record 72 victories, to get that save. But the score was tied, the Giants eventually went ahead, and Rivera’s 1 ½ innings of work came without possibility of a save.
Dreamy endings aside, there was still that final cheer as Pettitte waved his cap and pumped his arm en route to the dugout. There was that hug with Jeter, the first man he encountered below, and the curtain call as the crowd’s admiration rained down on him.
On the same day a more eastern-bound Giants franchise horrifyingly flushed its season down the toilet in Carolina, Pettitte produced one of his season’s best outings. He didn’t look like a tired old man. He looked like the confident Pettitte the Yanks have come to know.
Ultimately, the Yanks won’t make the postseason, so these are the moments that will go down as memorable in 2013; the further passing of a grand era, the home tributes to two men synonymous with the word thrill.
Next year, it is entirely possible a similar ceremony and a similar day will happen for the last of the Core. Jeter, aged and aching, is clearly at the end. Another year, more likely another few games into 2014, and the Bleacher Creatures will be shouting his roll call as teammates and managers and dignitaries trot out gifts both functional and funny, and toss dollars into the his charity’s coffers.
Sunday, though, was about Pettitte and Rivera, Pettitte doing what he did best for 18 years, all but three of those seasons in pinstripes.
He threw a gem. Then he left the Yankee Stadium mound for the last time.
A good, good pitcher walked into retirement.
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