Rivera's exit a fitting way to retire No. 42
Future Hall of Famer joins Robinson in both performance and class
This final chapter in the retirement of No. 42 throughout baseball is culminating so perfectly. Mariano Rivera? That works. Then again, if you wish to nitpick, I suppose you could say the last person to wear Jackie Robinson's number should have played for the Dodgers. It's just that his old team is in Los Angeles these days, and he broke the game's color barrier when they were in Brooklyn.
The Bronx is closer to Brooklyn than Chavez Ravine. I say that because the Yankees are from the first of those two New York boroughs, and Rivera is spending his last few days in pinstripes wearing No. 42 along the way to retirement after 19 seasons.
New York, New York.
It's the city that helped make Robinson and Rivera famous, or was it the other way around?
Anyway, we could nitpick some more. While Rivera is a closer, Robinson was mostly a second baseman. While Rivera is Panamanian, Robinson was African-American. While Rivera trots into home games with the beats of a heavy-metal song blaring at Yankee Stadium, Robinson took the field with the sounds of an organ in the background or the low buzzing from a sun-splattered crowd.
Everything else fits when it comes to Rivera on the verge of pushing No. 42 into history -- for good, this time. It fits so well that you would think the baseball gods concocted this whole Rivera thing on April 15, 1997. That was 50 years to the day after Robinson played his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. Which meant that five decades later, the commemorative game was in another New York borough called Queens and inside Shea Stadium, the former home of the Mets. I was there that night in a nearly packed house that included President Bill Clinton, Commissioner Bud Selig and Jackie's widow, Rachel.
The ceremony was simple but moving. It occurred (where else?) behind second base in the middle of a game between the Mets and (who else?) the Dodgers. Rachel stood nearby looking regal with grandson, Jesse Simms, and daughter, Sharon. There also was Branch Rickey III, the grandson of the Dodgers executive who originally signed Robinson. Before Clinton said, "Today, every American should give special thanks to Jackie Robinson, to Branch Rickey and to all of Jackie's teammates with the Dodgers for what they did," Selig summed up the purpose of the event: "No. 42 belongs to Jackie Robinson for the ages. No. 42, from this day forward, will never again be issued by a Major League club."
Such has been the case for 16 years and counting. Teams even display "42" with the rest of their retired numbers inside their ballparks. Plus, when baseball honors Jackie Robinson every year during games on April 15, players from all 30 teams don No. 42 as a tribute.
There was that asterisk, though. Anybody wearing No. 42 at the time of Selig's edict on April 15, 1997, was allowed to do so until that player's retirement, and the list primarily consisted of the obscure. For instance: Michael Jackson (the player, not the singer), Scott Karl, Jason Schmidt, Kirk Rueter, Lenny Webster, Butch Huskey, Tom Goodwin, Buddy Groom, Dennis Cook and Marc Sagmoen. In contrast, Mo Vaughn was a prominent hitter in his day, with 328 career home runs and a lifetime batting average of .293, and before Rivera, Vaughn was the last active player to wear No. 42 until he retired from the Mets after the 2003 season.
Still, Vaughn wasn't Rivera. Nobody was.
It had to be Rivera as the last man standing with No. 42 for so many reasons. For one, he will join Robinson among the elite of the elite in Cooperstown. Just as Robinson was peerless regarding his ability to combine courage and performance, the 43-year-old Rivera will rank near the top of all Hall of Famers with his ability to remain at a consistently high level throughout his career.
The fact that Rivera owns more saves than anybody (with 652) is secondary to his invincibility in October. He holds the postseason record for most games pitched (96), most saves (42) and lowest ERA (0.70, with a minimum of 70 innings pitched), and he does so by wide margins. More impressive, Rivera got the final out in four of the Yankees' past five World Series championships, and he closed out 16 postseason series overall.
Rivera did all of that with one pitch -- the cut fastball. Just like Robinson terrorized opponents with one attribute -- speed.
That said, there was more to both Robinson and Rivera than just their signature strengths on the diamond. There was their humility, and that humility was on display for Rivera during his farewell ceremony at Yankee Stadium last weekend that lasted around 50 minutes. In fact, he kept his portion brief by saying at the end, "So let's play ball, man. We gotta go."
They heeded Rivera's words, but not before his tribute featured a return of former Yanks manager Joe Torre and former teammates ranging from Bernie Williams to Jorge Posada to Tino Martinez. The gifts were plentiful, and so were the platitudes.
"He was about as good a security blanket as a manager would ever have," said Torre, referring to Rivera's nearly impeccable performances after leaving the bullpen.
Metallica played a live version of that heavy metal theme song for Rivera called "Enter Sandman." But here was the best part: Soon after the Yankees of Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle and the rest made Rivera the first active player to have his number retired by hanging his jersey in Monument Park beyond the stadium's outfield walls, the Yanks also dedicated a bronze plaque in the place to honor Robinson's No. 42.
Rachel was there to watch it all.
Can't get more perfect than that.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.