The 2013 season was a forgettable one for the Yankees and their fans. Terrible injury luck, age-related regression across the older core, and an incredibly flawed payroll management/roster construction plan combined to keep the Yanks hovering at or just above mediocrity as they rolled out a line of replacement-level garbage to fill in for the lost regulars.
One of the biggest storylines of the 2013 season was that it would be Mariano Rivera's farewell season. After missing most of 2012 due to a freak knee injury, Mo came back in 2013 determined to go out on his terms. He announced those terms before the start of the season, telling Yankee fans that it would be his last and setting the stage for what everyone knew would be a very emotional and memorable farewell moment.
Before that could happen, however, the Yankees had to slog through their disappointing season, the first one in which they did not make the playoffs in almost 20 years. Mo, in typical Mo fashion, was one of the few old veterans on the team who did not take a step back in 2013. He pitched as well as he ever had, saving 44 games and notching a stellar 2.11 ERA at age 43. As the team's slim postseason hopes disappeared in September, the fan focus and anticipation shifted to Mo's final few games and what kind of send-off the team had planned for him.
Looking back on it now, it's almost funny how stereotypically pathetic that final game was from a team standpoint. It was September 26th, 2013, the final home game of the season for the Yanks against division rival Tampa. Ivan Nova got the start against Alex Cobb and allowed a mere 2 runs in 7 innings of work, but the Yankee offense managed only a single hit off Cobb in 7 innings (in the bottom of the 1st no less), and only had 1 guy get past second base all night. In a season full of brutally inept offensive performances, this was one of the worst.
The 2-run deficit doubled to 4 in the top of the 8th thanks to Dellin Betances, and with 2 on, 1 out, and a save opportunity looking like it was no longer in the picture, Joe didn't waste any more time. He popped up out of the dugout, signaled to Mike Harkey in the bullpen, and that familiar guitar chord came through the Yankee Stadium sound system one last time...
You wouldn't have known it was the last time Mo was going to pitch by the way he carried himself getting to the mound, and it was business as usual once he got there. He worked out of the jam on 6 pitches, getting Delmon Young to fly out to left and Sam Fuld to ground out back to him to end the inning. The Yankee offense turned runners on the corners with nobody out in the bottom half into 0 runs, all but assuring the loss, and Mo came back out for the 9th for what in all likelihood would be his final inning of work in Yankee Stadium.
He got the first 2 outs of the inning as quickly and effortlessly as he got the final 2 of the 8th, and with the crowd roaring its approval suddenly there was another visit to the mound. But this time it wasn't Joe who came out, it was Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte, the other 2 remaining members of the Core Four and Mo's longtime teammates and friends. They smiled at him as they came out, and he did likewise once he realized what was going on. When they reached the mound to take the ball from him, it was as if all the emotion he'd been storing up over the course of the season and his entire career came out of him. He openly sobbed into the shoulders of Pettitte and Jeter as they embraced him, creating one of the defining images of the entire 2013 baseball season.
It was an incredibly touching and powerful moment to watch for any Yankee fan of any age. The great Mariano Rivera, known for his coolness and calmness under pressure and the almost inhumanly stoic way he carried himself on the mound, reduced to tears as he left it for the final time. The standing ovation he received from the crowd and the players on both sides was long and well-deserved. He didn't get to close out his final game, and the Yankees didn't get the win, but on this night it didn't matter.
The Yankees take a little heat sometimes for the lengths they go to to honor their past, but in this case there was nothing for anybody to gripe about. If there was anybody who deserved a final send-off like that it was Mo. I remember watching those final 2 innings with tears in my eyes, as I'm sure every other Yankee fan did, and to be honest I got misty once or twice thinking back to that game and watching the YouTube videos again this morning as I wrote this post. That's how great it was.
There was talk after the game about Mo playing the outfield in the season's final series in Houston, but the emotion of this ending was too much and too perfect and so he elected not to. Mo had given all he could give and left Yankee fans with one last great memory from his long and storied career. There weren't many moments worth cheering for or getting excited about in the 2013 season, but the quality and emotional value of this one great moment is what stands out and more than anything else is what people will and should remember.