COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Well, of course, Mariano Rivera was the closer. To have him fill any other role in the National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony outside the Clark Sports Center would have been some sort of sacrilege.
So just after former teammate Bernie Williams filled this picturesque summer Sunday with the sweet sound of his electric guitar take on “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” -- interspersed with the “Enter Sandman” riff, of course -- Rivera closed an emotional affair in which 53,000 attendees heard words of gratitude and love from Edgar Martinez, Lee Smith, Harold Baines, Mike Mussina and Roy Halladay’s remarkably resolute widow, Brandy.
And to the surprise of no one, Rivera was successful in the effort to put a perfect capper on the Class of 2019’s day in the sun.
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After all, he had plenty of experience waiting in the wings.
“[When you go last], you have the opportunity to relax and to think about what you’re doing and to attack what you’re doing,” he said afterward. “In baseball, I had seven or eight innings to watch what the hitters were doing. And now, at this induction, I had five people to watch what they do and have the opportunity to watch how they start and, maybe if I had to correct something, to do it.”
No corrections or revisions were necessary when the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballots were cast last winter. Rivera was the first unanimous Hall selection in history.
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That status added extra anticipation to Mo’s moment here. His popularity, his singular status as the clear-cut greatest closer of all time, and this tiny village’s relative proximity to his old stomping grounds in the Bronx all made for a magnificent crowd -- the second-largest in the history of the event. That crowd included the other three members of the Yankees’ Core Four -- Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter, the last of whom will certainly have his own seat on that stage one year from now.
With prepared notes in front of him, Rivera spoke mostly from the heart, not the page. He spoke of his humble past, his historic rise, his God-given cutter and his two families -- one bound by blood, the other by pinstripes. He spoke clearly, cogently and mostly in English, something that would have seemed impossible to him when he first arrived to the United States from his native Panama.
And as he spoke, the baseball world listened intently to this man who represents a sort of royalty in the sport. He commanded the stage much the way he once commanded the ninth -- with poise, with class and with precision.
“Baseball,” he said, “is a team sport. You cannot do it alone. And this honor is the same thing. You cannot do it alone.”
So, Mo acknowledged all those who helped him along the way. Teammates, coaches, trainers, friends and especially family. He made sure to apologize to his son Mariano Jr., whose Oct. 4 birthday generally conflicted with dad’s busy October schedule.
“I was on a mission,” said the owner of an amazing 0.70 ERA in 141 postseason innings.
Rivera spoke lovingly of his teammates, recalling fondly how his big league career ended with Jeter and Pettitte coming out to the mound to pull him from his final game in 2013.
“My two brothers came in and took me out of the game,” Rivera said. “That moment was special for me. I was grateful to the Good Lord that allowed me to play in New York with the greatest fans and end my career the way I did, with my two brothers next to me and me hugging them and crying over them and being thankful for them.”
And Rivera expressed deep gratitude to the fans.
“You guys always pushed me to be the best,” he said. “When I was at Yankee Stadium pitching, it felt like I was pitching with 55,000 people next to me throwing one pitch after another. You guys are the best and man, without your support, I cannot do it. You always pushed me to the limit.”
But Rivera was at his most captivating when detailing how a fisherman’s son who grew up wanting to be the next Pelé instead achieved greatness in another sporting realm. When he got an opportunity to try out for the Yankees, he knew only how to throw, not how to pitch.
“I had no uniform,” he said. “My spikes had a big hole in my big toe. I didn’t have a glove. But I went.”
All of baseball is glad he did, because to witness Rivera’s confounding cutter at work was pure magic. Rivera had an unmatched ability to make even the best hitters in the game look as if they had never held a bat before.
“Sorry guys,” he said with a smile on the stage, while turning to his fellow Hall of Famers.
That small, light-hearted bit of hubris was an outlier in a weekend in which Rivera, true to form, expressed a very pure humility and a very deep appreciation for what it means to be a Hall of Famer. He called himself a “rookie,” and his appearance on 100 percent of BBWAA ballots cast has done nothing to alter his unwaveringly modest and courteous approach to life. There might not have been a single answer given by Rivera to a single question from a reporter this weekend that wasn’t punctuated with a pleasant, “Thank you.”
So Rivera deserved this day, deserved this adulation and affection.
And yes, even on a day when another great closer was honored with Smith’s long-awaited induction, he deserved to be the closer, the headliner on this stage full of heroes.
“I like to be in that position,” he said afterward. “I think I’m built for that.”
On that point, there is unanimous agreement.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.