NEW YORK – It was an All-Star game devoid of memorable plays, but one that will resonate for one indelible moment.

The whole game, really, was filler until Mariano Rivera’s appearance. All else was a warm-up.

“We were all playing for that,” Oakland reliever Grant Balfour said. “That’s all we were talking about in the bullpen: We’re playing for one guy today, really. I know it’s a team game but we all wanted to see this guy get in the game and go out on a high.”

And if Jim Leyland’s mortal fear of the game ending with Rivera on the bench made his eighth-inning appearance a tad anti-climactic, well, the execution of Mo’s headline moment more than made up for it.

The American League had a 3-0 lead but Leyland decided he couldn’t take the chance that, in his words, “something freaky happened in the eighth.”

Just imagine the letdown if Leyland had held back Rivera for the save, only to have the NL rally for four runs in the eighth. In this nightmarish vision, Edward Mujica mows down the AL in the ninth and the game ends with Rivera glued to the bullpen bench.

“I’m probably not the most popular manager,” Leyland said. “I wanted to make sure I got out of here alive tonight.”

It would have been the companion piece to the 2002 tie in Milwaukee, another laughingstock moment. So upon reflection, I take no issue with Leyland using Rivera in the eighth, leaving Joe Nathan to finish the most overlooked save in All-Star history.

Especially not the way it unfolded. Neil Diamond had finally realized this wasn’t a Neil Diamond concert and finished his version of “Sweet Caroline” when the familiar yet still stirring “Enter Sandman” blared.

In a moment as heartfelt as Cal Ripken Jr. taking one last trot to shortstop in his final All-Star appearance in Seattle, the rest of the players remained in their dugouts as Rivera trotted onto an empty field. Then the players stood in front of their dugouts applauding, the relievers in the bullpen doing the same.

“I think that was something these guys, especially the position players, collectively — whether they talked about it or whether they just felt it — they made that a special moment,” Nathan said.

“For everyone to give credit to a guy who has given so much to this game, a legend in this game, who hopefully has taught a lot of people how to act as human beings, as baseball players. What he does for the people in the game, for the people outside the game, he’s a hero.”

Rivera stood on the mound for a long standing ovation, emotions visible. It was the Mets’ stadium but a New York crowd, and he has become one of their own.

“That almost made me cry,” Rivera said. “I’ll never forget that.”

Rivera then retired the side in order for his first hold since the last game of the 1996 World Series, when he worked ahead of John Wetteland. After that, he became the Yankees’ closer and somewhere along the line became the elite closer, and sometime after that a legend.

Rivera, who has announced his retirement after the season, was named the Most Valuable Player. Who else could it have been? At least MLB won’t have to worry about this year’s MVP besmirching the game, as last year’s, Melky Cabrera of the Giants, did with a positive drug test. Rivera’s conduct has been impeccable.

It was left for Nathan to complete the 3-0 victory, fully aware of the incongruity of following Rivera. And fully aware of the pressure to not blow it.

“I’ll come down sometime next week when I get a one-run game or something,” he joked. “I’ll be a lot more calm.

“It was cool, even though it was more to get him his credit and get him that moment, and make sure he got in the game. It was pretty cool to hand over a save ball to him that he got a hold in. I’m sure he doesn’t have too many holds in his career.”

Nathan said the decision to give the game ball to Rivera was “a no-brainer. I knew it was my first save and I wanted it, but I wanted to give it to him more.”

For the AL, the entire night was prelude for that moment.


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