Mo rips inside-the-park HR on Old-Timers' Day!
NEW YORK -- You might have believed Mariano Rivera had nothing left to accomplish on a baseball diamond, having recorded a Major League-record 652 saves, 42 more in the postseason and earning selection as the first unanimous inductee into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
You would have been wrong. Rivera fulfilled a few of his remaining big league fantasies in Sunday's 73rd annual Old-Timers' Day at Yankee Stadium, returning to the mound where he made his final appearance nearly six years ago before legging out an inside-the-park home run and catching a fly ball in center field.
"All those years, those 19 seasons that I played, I always knew when Old-Timers' Day was going to be," Rivera said. "I was here early for all those games. You share with the guys, sit and listen to their stories. Now for the first time, to be called an Old Timer, it's amazing. I had a great time today."
Rivera's homer came off Scott Kamieniecki, a line drive to the right-center-field gap that rolled to the wall. Raising his fists as he approached first base, Rivera appeared initially content to have legged out a double.
He saw center fielder Jeff Nelson slowly pursuing the ball and broke for third base, where he dodged Luis Sojo in the basepath and scored standing up. The relay throw hit a YES Network cameraman positioned behind the mound.
The longtime Yankees closer had three at-bats without a hit in his big league career, though he did lift a sacrifice fly during the club's World Series championship season in 2009.
"Are you kidding me? Not even in softball," Rivera said. "It was good, man. A good day, a good time seeing the guys, being on the field, pitching, running, catching some fly balls. It's amazing. That's what I love, that's what I always did. I thank God for a beautiful day, seeing the guys for the first time in years. It was outstanding."
Regarded as one of the finest athletes on the clubs for which he played, Rivera delighted in shagging batting-practice fly balls alongside the Yankees' pitchers and repeatedly spoke about wanting to play an inning in center field in a game during his playing career.
"Mariano was so smooth," Nelson said. "Probably one of the best athletes in baseball. We used to go out in batting practice and shag flies. He controlled center field and right-center, and I had left-center to the left-field line. He was probably our best outfielder if you ever put him in the outfield."
In 2013, Rivera's final season, he declined manager Joe Girardi's offer to play an inning in center field during the club's season-ending series in Houston. Rivera said at the time that he did not want to disrespect a Major League game, but he eagerly grabbed that chance on Sunday, effortlessly snaring a fly ball off Sojo's bat.
"I always told Joe Torre that he should put me in center field," Rivera said. "I told him, 'Joe, you can put me in the eighth inning and I'll get the last out in center field, then come back and pitch the ninth.' I'd be ready for that. He didn't want to do it. Anytime that I'm on that field, it's priceless. There's nothing better than that."
And of course, No. 42 returned to the mound, hearing the strains of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" and showing that he could still bring the heat. Relieving David Cone, Rivera playfully uncorked a few fastballs in his warmups that shocked Paul O'Neill.
"Turn it down a little bit!" shouted O'Neill, who tapped into a double play on what the right-hander called a "cookie," then barked, "Mo, I told you to throw it straight!"
In the Yankees' clubhouse, Brett Gardner said that he still thought of Rivera as a contemporary.
"I know the Old Timers enjoy coming back and it’s a day that they look forward to, but us as the active players, we really look forward to it also," Gardner said. "I think [Rivera] might be pitching for us [in the actual game]. There’s no telling. He probably still could."
Back on the mound after his catch and homer, the 49-year-old Rivera induced Bernie Williams to bounce into a double play. He also tossed a cutter that stunned Sojo -- unfortunately, the Stadium's radar guns were not turned on -- before bringing his velocity back to an acceptable Old-Timers' Day level.
"I have a lot of great moments in baseball, but my greatest moment in baseball was just wearing this uniform," Rivera said. "It wasn't on the field, it was just putting this uniform on for 19 seasons. That's what I believe, that's what I think about the pinstripes. It's legend, it's majesty, it's prestige. It's all of that. I was blessed that I wore this uniform for 19 years. To me, it was spectacular."