Rivera still flashes greatness on way to Cooperstown

NEW YORK – For one riveting moment Mariano Rivera had everyone in the ballpark believing it was 1998 and not the 2019 Old Timers Day in the Bronx. He was standing on the mound for a mock showdown with former teammate Paul O’Neill, part of a glorified company softball game played by middle-aged men gone soft.

Everyone, that is, except the greatest closer in baseball history, who couldn’t quite shut off that competitive gene even though he’ll be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame this Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y.

At age 49, Rivera had every right to lob a few ceremonial pitches toward the plate, tip his hat and enjoy an afternoon as the most popular living Yankee. Yes, the great right-hander had supplanted Derek Jeter, who’d skipped the festivities altogether to deal with the Marlins’ ongoing public relations nightmare in Miami.

So there Rivera was, standing on the mound after a thunderous ovation from the very fans who’d ridden shotgun on his 19-year career. He looked thicker in the middle, but only slightly, offering no other clues about a retirement that began after the 2013 season.

Rivera grinned at O’Neill, who looked even fitter than some of the present-day Yankees, let alone Rivera. Yet the former right fielder, now a broadcaster on the YES Network, insists “I can’t hit anymore – those days are over.” And he had no illusions about facing Rivera, even in this make-believe war between friends.

O’Neill pleaded for mercy – flattening his hand and making a jabbing-like motion in Rivera’s direction. The gesture hardly needed a translation: O’Neill was begging for a straight fastball so as not to be embarrassed in front of a sell-out crowd waiting for exactly the opposite. They wanted Rivera to unleash the cutter that turned him into the Hall of Fame’s first unanimous inductee.

Rivera’s grin had turned to laughter; he was in on the joke. Of course he would be merciful with O’Neill – but not before inviting everyone into his personal time tunnel. He began his windup and all the moving parts were suddenly in sync again: the effortless ascent of the left knee toward the chin, the rotation of the shoulders, the long stride, a delivery so graceful it mimicked ballet.

David Cone used to call Rivera “Inspector Gadget” because of the illusion the great reliever created with every pitch – an arm that extended beyond its socket at full extension. It’s what coaches teach in high school and college. It’s what pitchers dream about: being blessed with such flexibility that the arm becomes a whip.

Incredibly, Rivera’s gift was still intact. So impressive was the sight of his perfect mechanics that several of the Houston Astros began videotaping him on their cell phones from the visitors’ dugout. Remember: the first pitch between two American League powerhouses was less than an hour away. On any other day both hitters and pitchers would have been busy in strategy meetings.

But it’s not often that a physical freak proves he’s immune to the ravages of time. The Astros were just as enthralled as the Yankees as Rivera cranked up 2-3 pitches that would’ve been clocked in the mid-80s had a radar gun been present. One could hear the pop in John Flaherty’s glove as Rivera seemed ready to crank up the velocity yet again – this time to 90-mph, or about where he left off in 2013.

Rivera stopped grinning, seemingly having gone into a trance. Someone would later ask what it felt like to stand in front of thousands and relive the old rush of adrenaline.

“It was amazing, especially in front of the fans,” Rivera said. “I still love to compete. It brings back so many memories.”

Of course, the thought of an almost-50-year-old Rivera being able to overpower major league hitters in 2019 is probably far-fetched. Nature takes its toll even on the most iconic and ageless athletes. Forty six year-old Aaron Boone, for example, was asked if he could still make contact today – against, say, Justin Verlander.

Boone, who sent the Yankees to the World Series in 2003 with a history-making home runs against the Red Sox in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series, hardly drew a breath before saying, “no chance.”

And so perhaps the same should be said of Rivera: no shot against present-day hitters obsessed with launch angles and exit-velocity numbers. But there’s still no question who owned the moment and the day. Rivera ultimately took pity on O’Neill, throwing him a G-rated version of the cut fastball that chugged along at 70-mph or so.

And yet, even at that adult-league speed, the pitch still jammed O’Neill, who bounced meekly back to the box. And Rivera wasn’t finished. He played center field an inning later and put the final touches on the afternoon by slugging an inside-the-park home run.

He ran the bases with the gait of a ballplayer 20 years younger, barely winded as his crossed home plate. The crowd roared as one. The Yankees’ alumni playfully hugged and back-slapped Rivera as he returned to the dugout. Even the Astros couldn’t help but clap. Rivera called it an “amazing experience. I feel so blessed.”

He will soon repeat those words at Cooperstown, no doubt considering the induction speech as the highlight of an amazing career. But that Old Timers Game where the calendar flipped backward a decade or two? Rivera just might rank that a close second.

Featured Image: Jim McIsaac / Getty Images Sport