NEW YORK -- It was surreal and touching and perfect in every way. How else could we begin to say our goodbyes to Mariano Rivera?
"You're looking at greatness," Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter said.
"You're looking at somebody that's going to have a statue in New York," Hunter added. "When you see him and talk to him, you cherish the moment. Shaking his hand, listening to him speak, I can tell my grandkids."
Afterwards, American League manager Jim Leyland choked up as he attempted to put the evening into words.
"I can't tell you how emotional it was in the clubhouse before the game," Leyland said after his AL team won, 3-0, against the National League on Tuesday night. "That was very touching."
And in both clubhouses, they talked about seeing one of the great players of all time pitch in his 13th and final All-Star Game. Rivera is the greatest closer of all time, but that's the beginning of what he means to the players, coaches, managers and executives of Major League Baseball.
For 19 seasons, Rivera has done more than simply pitch at a Hall of Fame level and help the Yankees win five championships. He has been a consummate professional on the field and in the clubhouse, humble, giving, beloved. He has understood that players are also role models, and that walking the walk is more important than talking the talk.
When Rivera announced in Spring Training that this season would be his last, this 84th All-Star Game took on even more meaning. Before the game, Leyland spoke to his players, letting them know that this was no normal All-Star Game.
Then it was Hunter's turn to speak, and then he invited Rivera to say a few words.
"What I said was that I was honored, and it was a privilege for me to play with all of them, you know, for so many years," Rivera said. "This is my 13th year as an All-Star, and many of them, it was their first one. I told them, just make sure they enjoy [it], because it goes quick. That was my speech, and I told them, I appreciate every bit of them, and for me, it was a privilege and an honor to play with them."
Leyland decided that if the game was close, he would have Rivera pitch the eighth inning instead of the ninth because he didn't want to take a chance on him not pitching.
So after the top of the eighth, after Neil Diamond led the packed house of 45,186 in "Sweet Caroline," Rivera's entrance music -- "Enter Sandman" -- announced his arrival.
As Rivera began the jog in from the bullpen with television cameras following, fans stood and bathed him in a warm ovation. Once he arrived at the mound, Rivera saw something he'd never seen before. His AL teammates had remained at the dugout to give him the stage alone.
"This is what you do for someone like that," Hunter said.
Leyland said it was a spontaneous decision to remain off the field, a quick conversation with one of his coaches, Gene Lamont, who suggested it.
"It felt so weird," Rivera said. "Basically, I was there alone with my catcher. I don't know how to act. At that moment, I didn't know what to do, just keep throwing the ball, I guess, because it was so weird. But at the same time, I mean, I definitely appreciate that, you know, what they did for me."
And players from both teams, and Leyland and his counterpart, NL manager Bruce Bochy, joined the crowd in the standing ovation. Rivera paused, smiled and tipped his hat to every section of the stadium and to both clubs.
"It almost made me cry," Rivera said. "I was close. It was amazing, a scene that I will never forget that."
Rivera somehow gathered his composure and retired the NL in order. He got Brewers shortstop Jean Segura to hit one of his legendary cutters softly to second. Cardinals first baseman Allen Craig lined out to left field on another one. Finally, Brewers outfielder Carlos Gomez hit one to short to end the inning.
And that was that.
"That's one of the moments I'll never forget," Craig said. "That was probably one of the coolest at-bats I've had in my career. I just thought it was extremely special that the stars kind of aligned for me to have a chance to face him."
Rangers closer Joe Nathan finished things off in the bottom of the ninth as Rivera smiled in the dugout. When Rivera accepted the Ted Williams Most Valuable Player Award, he took the microphone from FOX's Erin Andrews and thanked the fans himself.
"I have no words to describe everything," he said. "It was amazing."
Rivera said it was one of those moments he'll remember forever. So will millions of others. Baseball has that power, to captivate and to move. There'll be other great players come along, other great citizens of the world, too, but there'll never be another one exactly like this one.
Rivera's blend of dignity and grace and greatness may never be seen again. Baseball used this All-Star Game to show him how much he means to all of us on so many levels, and he clearly was moved. Then again, so were countless others. Rivera has been that important, that inspirational, that perfect, for a ride that is ending too soon.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less