NEW YORK -- As the last days of an illustrious career dwindle to the final few, Mariano Rivera can add this accolade to all the others: He joins Derek Jeter as the only Yankees elected Most Valuable Player of the All-Star Game.
The closer extraordinaire was given the honor on Tuesday night after he pitched a flawless eighth inning as the American League defeated the National League, 3-0, ending a three-year run of losses.
That's right, you heard it right. Rivera pitched the eighth, setting up for Joe Nathan, who worked the ninth and earned his first All-Star save. Rivera hasn't been in that role since 1996, when John Wetteland was the closer, saved all four Yankees victories over the Braves and was named MVP of that World Series.
"Jimmy, we talked about it during batting practice, and he told me he wanted to make sure that I pitched," Rivera said. "He said that it depended on how the game goes and what happened. If we were winning by one or two runs, I would pitch in the eighth, because he wanted to make sure that he pitched me.
"That's the reason I pitched the eighth inning and not the ninth inning. I mean, you don't know what can happen in the game of baseball. Anything can happen, and it happens quick when there are great players out there. The decision was OK. And we won. That was the most important thing."
"I think you all understand that if something freaky would have happened and they scored some runs to take the lead, there possibly wouldn't have been a bottom of the ninth, so that's why I did it," he said.
Rivera was obviously moved by the tribute and the fuss about him all evening, even donating his game cap to the Hall of Fame.
It happened at Citi Field, where he threw out the first pitch prior to a Yankees-Mets game on May 28 and then came on in the ninth to blow a 1-0 lead and the save. But on Tuesday, he ran in from the bullpen to the strains of the usual "Enter Sandman," his walk-on music, which is a trademark in the Bronx, not Queens.
Rivera arrived on the mound to find himself warming up alone with Royals catcher Salvador Perez. Out of respect, the rest of the AL team remained in the dugout until he was just about finished, allowing him to bask in the glow of a two-minute standing ovation.
"I mean, everything was a surprise this night," Rivera said. "No, I wasn't expecting that. I wanted to come in and do my job, and when I was crossing the field, I got to the mound, and then I heard that song -- my song -- in another stadium, that was great. And when I got to the mound, I saw both sides, both teams in the dugout. It almost made me cry, too. I was close. It was amazing -- a scene that I will never forget."
It's no coincidence that the last time the AL won the All-Star Game, Rivera earned the save. It was his fourth, extending his All-Star Game record. That goes along with his record 638 regular-season saves and record 42 more in the playoffs. All he did Tuesday was his usual job -- albeit an inning early -- and he did that by getting Jean Segura to ground out to second, pinch-hitter Allen Craig to line out to left and Carlos Gomez to ground to short. He threw 16 pitches, 11 for strikes and turned another page in his epic history.
In nine All-Star appearances, Rivera allowed only five hits and no earned runs for an impeccable 0.00 ERA. He walked none and struck out five for a minuscule 0.56 WHIP. NL opponents finished batting .185 against him.
"What a class act," said Tigers ace Justin Verlander, who was on the AL team but didn't get into the game. "Listening to him talk, it's something I'll never forget."
"It was extremely humbling just to meet him," Giants closer Sergio Romo said. "For me to shake his hand and let him know how much I respect him and then for him to come back and say, 'Thank you, Romo.' Wait. You know my name? Wow, what a feeling just to know that I'm visible to a person like that -- someone I feel is a hero in the game, a guy who I personally look up to. Why not try to be like the best example, which is Mariano Rivera? I saw it live. Very special."
"I thought it was wonderful by the fans, but I expected it to be -- this is New York, obviously, it's a different place," Leyland said. "I can't imagine how [former and current Yankees managers] Joe Torre and Joe Girardi feel bringing him in the ninth. That's a pretty good feeling. Tonight was the eighth inning, so if anybody ever messed up Mariano Rivera, I can lay claim to that."
Jeter, of course, wasn't there. Save for one game this past Thursday, he missed the first half of the season in the aftermath of a broken ankle and now is nursing a strained quad.
Jeter and Rivera have played together regularly every year since 1996, although Rivera missed most of the 2012 season after suffering a knee injury. They have won five World Series championships and seven AL pennants together, a record unparalleled in this era of the three-tier playoff system.
Major League Baseball began giving out the All-Star Game MVP in 1962 and before Tuesday, the only Yankees player to win it was Jeter in 2000. Rivera now joins him. In any era, they are among the best of the Yankees greats.
"I can't describe it," Rivera said, trying to sum up the evening. "I have no words for it. It's been a wonderful night, the whole event. I have to thank every one of you guys for making this possible. Thank God for everything -- my wife, my kids -- thank you for all the support. It has been amazing. I have no words to describe this night."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less