Mariano Rivera was on the mound the first time this New York Yankees dynasty, the one that brought four World Series titles to the Bronx in five years from 1996 to 2000, came to its dramatic end. It was a looping floater off Luis Gonzalez’s bat that fluttered over Rivera’s head and just beyond the infield dirt, just far enough into the outfield to score Jay Bell and make the Arizona Diamondbacks the World Series champions. November 4, 2001 was, as Buster Olney put it, the last night of the Yankee dynasty.
But the remnants of that dynasty remained, and the Yankees even breathed their own life back into it at times, winning the American League again in 2003 and the World Series again in 2009. And even if the cast of characters was different, three faces were always the same: there was Andy Pettitte, the ever-steady starting pitcher, Derek Jeter, the captain and Yankee icon, and most of all Mo, the stalwart closer who saved more games than anyone in Major League history and pitched better in the postseason than any of his contemporaries and, famously, allowed fewer earned runs in the playoffs than there have been men on the moon.
So it wasn’t until Thursday, September 26, 2013, that the dynasty took what may be its final breath, when with two outs in the ninth inning of the final home game of the season, Jeter and Pettitte emerged from the first base dugout, both donning navy blue hoodies and joyful if regretful smiles. They loafed to the mound, where the only other lasting piece of that dynasty was standing for the final time. Rivera, 159 games into his farewell season, didn’t notice them at first, but he smiled when he did, a sheepish smile at first and then an outright grin.
Rivera handed the ball to Pettitte, the pitcher for whom he has saved more games than any other, and the tears came cascading down. Rivera buried his face into Pettitte’s shoulder and wouldn’t let him turn away even when Pettitte tried. The tears continued through an embrace with Jeter, and it wasn’t until a minute or so later that Rivera finally left the mound with every Yankee fan and every member of the opposing Tampa Bay Rays, a team that still had something to play for, on their feet applauding. Jeter and Pettitte stood there as Rivera hugged every Yankee in the dugout, first manager Joe Girardi, who had once been his catcher, and finally Alex Rodriguez, the troubled superstar who has called Rivera his role model. Yankee fans kept standing and kept chanting — first “Ma-ri-a-no” then “We want Mo!” — until Rivera emerged again for a final curtain call. Then he retreated to the end of the bench, alone, hat off, with the face of man first realizing his own mortality. It was over.
It was a moment that had to soften even the biggest cynics, those baseball fans hardened by something as big as renewed drug investigations or something as small as the Yankees playing a meaningless game in September. It was enough to weaken even those who grew up hating these Yankees and rejoicing when Rivera finally blew a save that November night. This is why we watch, for competitors like Rivera and moments like his last one.
The whole season has been his celebration, a tour of gifts from opposing clubs and ovations from fans who still fear seeing him come to the mound with a lead in the ninth. But Thursday was something different, less a celebration than a realization, not just for Rivera but also for the two men who pulled him off the mound — his mound — one final time. All three players, the only three remaining from those victories and from the ill-fated night the dynasty started to crack in 2001, are nearing their end, Pettitte retiring at age 41 after 18 seasons in baseball and 15 with the Yankees, and Jeter, at 39, on his last legs after missing all but 17 games this year. Jeter swears he’s coming back — he has a farewell tour of his own waiting as soon as he triggers it — but he’ll never be the same and neither will this, not when he’s the only one left and not when there’s no one he can turn to and remember the times when his Yankees weren’t just on top of the world but were expected to be there every year.
As much as it’s over for Rivera, it’s over for all them, and so Jeter looked at Rivera when he reached the mound and said, “It’s time to go.” He was talking to Mo but might as well have meant it for the group, because this was it, the final time they’ll be together here, and there’s no more pretending this day would never come. This Yankee dynasty is over, the game left to a new cast who will return next spring with the near-impossible task of writing a story as great as the one these three just finished.