The memorable night was over, but Mariano Rivera wanted to revisit it. He was still wearing his Yankee uniform, still gushing about a night like no other. Rivera wanted to go back on the field, wanted to climb back on the mound and wanted to feel what it was like to be universally adored. Again.
There has never been another pitcher with the distinct talents of Rivera and there aren't enough people with the gentlemanly traits of Rivera. As the 43-year old Rivera leaned against a cinderblock wall near the visiting clubhouse at CitiField, he grew emotional while discussing how both teams delayed the All-Star Game to stand and cheer for him.
"They almost made me cry," Rivera said. "Almost. It was close. It has been tremendous. I was telling them I hope this night doesn't end."
If Rivera kept talking about the night, the night where he came in to pitch a scoreless eighth inning for the American League, maybe he thought it wouldn't end. So, following a press conference, Rivera kept talking. He recalled how he trotted in from the bullpen, got to his usual place of work on the mound and then realized he was alone on a baseball island.
In one of the coolest, classiest displays I've ever seen, the other All-Stars treated Rivera like the ultimate All-Star. As Rivera pitches in his final season, his peers reminded the cool, classy closer about how much he has meant to baseball. He removed his cap and waved it to both dugouts. His eyes were moist.
"I got ready to throw and I see, because my face was facing the National League team, and they're all in front of the dugout cheering and applauding me," Rivera said. "Then I looked to my right and I see my teammates and they are doing it also. I'm like, 'Oh, my God.' It's special."
When Rivera recounted that amazing display from the A.L.'s 3-0 victory, he almost began crying again. He shook his head. He collected himself. So I asked him how meaningful it was to have the best players in baseball treat him with such reverence in his final All-Star Game.
"The best players in baseball, all over the world," Rivera repeated. "The best players. I will never forget that moment because all I have done and all I want to do is represent the New York Yankees with dignity and pride and represent baseball and do it well. And to see that from both teams, the cream of the cream, that was priceless. There was no price for that. I was there alone, soaking it in. And I did."
Rivera had a baseball from the game stuffed in his back pocket. He said his family would decide who would get the first opportunity to drive the blue sports car he received for being named the Most Valuable Player. He took out the baseball and held it as if he was holding a cutter. He seemed ready to throw another pitch. He didn't want the memory of this night to end.
"I will keep it," Rivera said, "until the day I die."
As soon as Matt Harvey's 96-mile per hour fastball collided with the back of Robinson Cano's right knee, the sound was enough to concern the Yankees. It was a loud and ugly sound, a sound that was followed by the sight of a wounded Cano trying to walk to first base. He made it to first, but then quickly removed himself from the game.
In a season that has been littered with injuries, the Yankees wondered if their best and most durable player had suffered a major injury in the first inning of the All-Star Game on Tuesday night. For several anxious minutes, Cano and the Yankees waited and wondered. The Yankees were relieved to learn that Cano's X-rays were negative and that he merely had a contusion on his right quadriceps.
After Cano learned of the X-ray results, I spotted him sitting in a golf cart outside the National League clubhouse. I asked Cano if he was O.K. and Cano smiled and said that he was fine. Then Cano's driver hustled him away and drove him back to American League clubhouse. A few minutes later, Cano explained that he felt some tightness, not pain, in his quad and was hopeful that he could play against the Red Sox on Friday night.
"Yeah, hopefully, yeah," Cano said.
Cano described how Harvey's second pitch to him cut sharply inside and drilled him behind his knee. The ball moved so fast that Cano couldn't get out of the way. Cano said that trainers told him to ice his leg and rest for the next few days.
When Cano limped from first base to the third base dugout to leave the game, Harvey patted his chest to take ownership of the pitch. Cano said Harvey was saying "my bad" and Cano winked at him.
"What else can you say?" Cano said. He said Harvey did not "want to hit nobody on purpose."
Harvey, who pitched two scoreless innings, stressed that he wasn't trying to hit Cano.
"It's the last thing I wanted to do is injure somebody," Harvey said. "Obviously, I apologized and made sure he's O.K."
As the Yankees try to make a post-season push, they need more offense and, of course, they must have a healthy and productive Cano. Cano has hit .302 with 21 homers and 65 runs batted in and has played in all 95 Yankee games. The Yankees need him to play in the 96th game and the 97th and on and on. A 96 M.P.H. fastball almost spoiled that plan, but Cano and the Yankees were fortunate that it didn't.
There are some Spring Training mornings that are sleepier than others. Mornings where the players you planned to interview are unavailable and you spend an hour staring at your iPhone, the clubhouse television or the carpet. Every reporter hates those unproductive sessions.
On one of those mornings that was headed toward being sleepy this spring, I ended up having my first conversation with Thomas Neal. Neal was a long shot to make the Yankees to open the season after being signed as a minor league free agent, but I had been impressed with his at bats so we started chatting. Soon, I was impressed with Neal’s demeanor, too.
For a player who only had 24 plate appearances in the Major Leagues with the Cleveland Indians and who spent most of 2012 with Class AA Akron, Neal was confident. Confident in a good way, too, not a cocky way. He spoke about his career in a thoughtful manner, explaining what he had done to make it this far and what he needed to do to make it to the big leagues and remain there.
When I asked Neal if he expected to help the 2013 Yankees, he didn’t hesitate and instantly said that he did. Two players who overheard Neal’s confident answer glanced in his direction, but I don’t think Neal even noticed that. He was focused on his plan, his path to making sure this season would be a season in which he contributed to the Yankees.
“For me, a big part of doing well in this game has been the mental side,” Neal said. “I know what I can do. I have to stay confident and show that I can do it.”
By staying confident and producing at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Neal (.339 average, .426 on-base percentage, two homers, 24 runs batted in) earned himself a promotion to the Yankees on Friday. The Yankees’ offense has been abysmal, going scoreless in the final 17 innings of a 3-2, 18-inning loss to the Oakland Athletics on Thursday. Mark Teixeira, Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner and Kevin Youkilis combined to go 0-for-28 with 12 strikeouts. New York was 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position.
Neal is not a savior for an offense that is 11th in the American League with 260 runs, but he gives Manager Joe Girardi another option against left-handed pitchers. In recalling Neal, the Yankees hope he can provide some kind of offense, any kind of offense. Both Wells and Ichiro Suzuki, the Yankees’ corner outfielders, have vanished.
Because the Yankees have been so uninspiring on offense, Neal will get a chance to contribute. It’s an opportunity that Neal envisioned during our conversation in spring training. When Neal wasn’t describing his grandfather’s baseball career and how he names his gloves, he predicted that he would help the Yankees in 2013. Beginning on Friday night, Neal gets his chance.