NEW YORK -- No player ever went out in All-Star style like Mariano Rivera.
The 84th All-Star Game will be remembered as the perfect swan song, and it also goes down as the best such exit ever. A day after the Yankees' closer received an unforgettable ovation and a Ted Williams Most Valuable Player Award, it was time to look through Major League Baseball history and find any comparable All-Star Game exits for outgoing greats.
Parting 'tis indeed such sweet sorrow. We do not always know when a Joe DiMaggio is going to hang up his cleats or whether a Sandy Koufax will give in to his arm's pain. Babe Ruth hung around too long for an All-Star tribute. It requires a recipe of retirement's foregone conclusion and a beloved legend. While nothing could match "The Mo Game" for such emotional display, there have been some sweet goodbyes in an event that started in 1933.
In 1968, the venue itself was the star as Houston's new Astrodome hosted the Midsummer Classic. But it also was a moment to celebrate Mickey Mantle. In what shaped up as Mantle's last season, the two leagues began a tradition of naming team captains. Mantle (Yankees) was captain of the American League, and Willie Mays (Giants) of the National League.
In the top of the eighth inning, the Mick came up to bat and was given a standing ovation. Ironically, one outgoing New York legend would face an incoming New York legend. Tom Seaver promptly struck Mantle out in the 16th year that the latter graced the event.
Speaking of Mays, fast-forward to 1973. Mays had been the embodiment of the All-Star Game. Coming back from military service for the 1954 season, he was named an All-Star that year and each one after it through 1972, including the doubleheader years. In '73, he was chosen one last time, finally with the Mets. In that game at Kansas City, Mays came up as a pinch-hitter in the seventh to bat for Willie Stargell, one of those stars who had taken over the NL stage.
The Royals fans gave Mays a prolonged standing ovation -- showing the same kind of respect, in fact, that they would show for Miguel Cabrera just last year when he clinched the Triple Crown there. Mays struck out. He walked toward the dugout with a sad visage, but the crowd continued to stand and reinforce baseball's appreciation of a great career.
Rivera was not the first outgoing legend to win the MVP trophy in his last All-Star Game. Cal Ripken Jr. did it in 2001, and that night at Seattle, the most memorable gesture was at the start of the game rather than the end of it. Alex Rodriguez was the AL's starting shortstop, and Ripken was starting at third, having converted from shortstop out of necessity during his career. As the two ran out to take their positions in the first inning, Rodriguez went to third and coaxed Ripken to play short, in deference and respect to the years Ripken had spent there.
At the start of the second inning, the two switched back to their assigned positions. But the point had been made, which was simply to focus attention on the outgoing great. Ripken made the most of that night, homering off Chan Ho Park to open the AL scoring.
"First get put on the pedestal he belonged on by another great player in A-Rod, when A-Rod made him go to shortstop," MLB Network analyst Mitch Williams said. "Then Cal hits a home run in his final All-Star Game. How do you top that?"
Rivera just did. Yet there was another Yankee moment that merits a place here as well.
In 1939, Lou Gehrig was the AL's honorary captain at Yankee Stadium, where the AL won, 3-1, in the seventh edition of the game. A rookie fireballer named Bob Feller escaped a bases-loaded jam and dominated, an example back then of the game's unstoppable transition of power. It was July 11, and exactly one week earlier, the Iron Horse had given his famous "Luckiest Man" speech, having retired after only eight games played that season because of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He died June 2, 1941.
More often than not, future Hall of Famers who were All-Stars in their final seasons had no idea at the time that they were winding down their careers. In 1974, for example, Detroit's Al Kaline was named an All-Star for a 15th season, his last, but it was not a time for choking back tears. He was charging hard at 3,000 hits, a milestone he would reach later that season.
Stan Musial in 1963? It was his 24th and final All-Star outing, but this was not a man who was willingly going into baseball's good night. It was not exactly a year of retirement tributes at each park Musial visited, the kind that Rivera is receiving now, or the kind Chipper Jones experienced just last year.
That kind of "farewell season" mindset can make an All-Star Game much more fun, as the Braves' No. 10 enjoyed last year when he gave a pregame speech to NL teammates, when he was hailed by fans in pregame introductions, and when he hit an RBI single off Chris Sale in his final All-Star at-bat.
"It's a really cool moment," Jones said. "I've said all along through the first half there have been games and moments that couldn't have been scripted any better. Today is one of those games that I will remember fondly when I look back on my last season."
Barry Bonds is worth a mention here, at least for Giants fans. If you were among those at AT&T Park on July 10, 2007, you might have looked past the investigations of steroid abuse and been part of the standing ovation he received in his 14th and final Midsummer Classic. Bonds started in left field for the NL and was 0-for-2. He bowed out that season with 762 home runs.
While we are on the subject of All-Star swan songs, let's not forget 1981. It was the opposite of a Mo Moment. This was a goodbye to a 50-day strike, and a night they welcomed back the game itself. An All-Star Game was played in Cleveland, and all was right with the world again.