Leyland made Rivera’s finale perfect

I’m sorry, but one of the most beautiful moments in All-Star Game history was just as beautiful in the eighth inning as it would have been in the ninth.

Mariano Rivera closing his final All-Star Game — that was the dream finale. But managers are paid to think of worst-case scenarios. And American League manager Jim Leyland had a worst-case scenario in mind.

Maybe a half-hour before the game, while chatting casually in the AL dugout, Leyland informed me of his plan to ensure that Rivera indeed would pitch. Leyland said that if the AL had only a small lead in the late innings, he would use Rivera in the eighth and not the ninth.

“Say we lead 5-4, give up a couple of runs and fall behind 6-5,” Leyland explained. “Then there might not be a ninth.”

Such an outcome — Rivera failing to ever take the mound — would have been unacceptable. And as the old skipper from Perrysburg, Ohio, put it afterward, he wanted to get out of New York City alive.

So, Leyland followed his plan, leaving some fans curious, others incredulous, at least judging from the reaction on Twitter.

He got Rivera ready for the eighth with the AL leading 2-0. The AL made it 3-0 in the top half, but by then Rivera was warming and Leyland had no intention of turning back.

“Actually, I kind of lied to the players before the game,” Leyland said. “I said, ‘I’m not a motivational speaker, but my motivation for tonight is to work our fannies off to get to the ninth inning and bring in the greatest closer of all-time.’

“I did lie a little bit — one inning.”

Tell me, what was the harm? What was the difference?

Rivera jogged in from the bullpen, took the mound to his trademark, “Enter Sandman” and then stood on the field, alone.

The AL defenders remained in their dugout, applauding. The National League players did the same. Even the NL relievers left their bullpen to cheer Rivera.

“It was amazing,” Rivera said afterward. “It almost made me cry.”

So often these moments are scripted, planned, pre-packaged. This one was spontaneous. Neil Diamond had just sung, “Sweet Caroline.” The AL players instinctively hung back.

“It just happened,” Torii Hunter said. “It was weird.”

Rivera even said afterward, “That’s not baseball. You’re supposed to have your teammates behind you.” But Leyland told his longtime bench coach, Gene Lamont, that he did not want the players to take the field.

“Absolutely not, they’ve got to wait,” Leyland recalled telling Lamont. “They’re going to follow him in with a camera. We want the whole scenario.”

The foolproof scenario.

Rivera getting his moment. Rivera pitching a perfect, 16-pitch eighth. Joe Nathan preserving the 3-0 victory with his own scoreless inning.

That’s how it unfolded, all quite perfectly.

Before the game ended, I had the privilege of interviewing Rivera on FOX. As Rivera stood next to me, waiting to go on camera, the wide-bodied Prince Fielder led off the ninth with a triple, much to the delight of the AL dugout. Rivera smiled and cheered with everyone else. And shortly thereafter, the interview began.

I asked Rivera what it was like to walk onto the field alone. He immediately became emotional.

“It was . . . it was tough," he said. "It was special, you know, I mean . . . seeing the fans cheering and both teams standing out in the dugout, you know, managers, coaches, players . . . priceless.”

Where did that moment rank in his career?

“Oh my God. Never been in a situation like this. The only difference, World Series. But besides that, this has been right there.”

A few minutes later, after the interview was complete, Rivera stood in the same area at the end of the dugout, talking to reporters and baseball officials, recalling what had happened.

“It was class,” he said. “It was class.”

And you want to tell me the inning mattered?

You want to tell me that Leyland screwed up?

Leyland gets it, gets it more than many even realize. He twice choked up during his postgame news conference, first when talking about how emotional the AL players were before the game, then when recalling something Rivera said to him at Comerica Park after he presented the pitcher with a farewell gift during a ceremony in April.

“He said something that will stick with me forever,” Leyland said, declining to reveal Rivera’s exact words.

Now, Leyland could have allowed another reliever to start the eighth and then summoned Rivera if the game suddenly got tight. But the moment would not have been the same. Rivera’s entrance would not have been nearly as grand.

Rivera said that Leyland told him after batting practice how he would proceed. Both during and after the game, Rivera said he had no problem with the plan.

“I wanted to pitch,” Rivera told me on FOX. “You know, the game of baseball, anything can happen. Leyland wanted to make sure that I pitch, so it was a great idea, you know. I appreciate him giving me the opportunity to do this.”

Leyland didn’t want to mess it up. He couldn’t mess it up.

He always paces in the dugout, but as the game moved into the late innings, he seemed particularly worried and intense.

“This was one of the toughest games I’ve ever had to manage,” Leyland said. “You had all these different scenarios that might happen. The show tonight, even though we won the game and a lot of guys did a very, very good job, I don’t want to slight anybody, (but) this was really about trying to manipulate (it) so we got Mariano at the right time.”

You did it, Jim.

You did it just fine.