Mariano Rivera, who has become a legend saving games in the ninth inning, ended his All Star career as a setup guy for Joe Nathan. Jim Leyland’s heart may have been in the right place, but the logic behind his epic blunder was horribly wrong.
With the American League leading 3-0 in the bottom of the eighth, Leyland was handed the perfect script. Common sense seemed to dictate giving the ball to Nathan as a segue to the immortal Rivera in the ninth, allowing the future Hall of Famer to walk off the field triumphantly with a save in his final All Star Game. Instead, Leyland reversed that order, dulling what was still a great moment when Enter Sandman played in the eighth, but one that could have been even more memorable had it occurred an inning later.
Leyland’s curious decision wasn’t completely out of the blue. The veteran manager’s biggest fear was having the National League rally in the eighth, thereby denying Rivera a chance to pitch. When the score was 2-0, that logic might have made some sense, but once the A.L.’s lead increased to three, it was rendered obsolete. After all, in 659 games, Nathan had allowed four runs in only six appearances, so the chance of him squandering Rivera’s opportunity to close was remote. And, even if the National League did rally, Leyland could have still summoned Rivera to snuff it out. There was never a risk that the Yankees’ closer would be left in the bullpen, but by hedging a little, Leyland could have ensured the finish everyone wanted to see. Instead, the Tigers’ manager didn’t adapt his plan, and baseball fans paid the price.
Although his intentions were good, Leyland’s poor judgment has left him vulnerable to the kind of fallout Cito Gaston endured when the Blue Jays manager left Mike Mussina warming up in the bullpen during the final inning of the 1993 All Star Game, which was played in Baltimore. However, Rivera won’t be among the critics. Not surprisingly, the always humble closer was gracious after his appearance, even thanking Leyland for ensuring his appearance in the game. Rivera didn’t get a chance to notch another save, but he was afforded another opportunity to display the class and dignity that have defined his career.
As a consolation, Rivera was voted the All Star Game MVP. Still, the real tribute should have been the honor of recording the final out. If only Leyland hadn’t over-managed an easy decision and simply saved his best…the very best…for last, baseball fans would have been left with a more lasting memory of the greatest closer of all time slamming the door in his final Midsummer Classic. It would have been a perfect script…almost as perfect as Rivera himself.