MLB’s youth celebrates Mariano

Jason Kipnis was about to leave the American League dugout and jog out to second base when he felt a tug on his jersey.

“I didn’t know what they were doing, because I didn’t see anything happening,” a smiling Kipnis recalled later. “Then you hear the music come on, and I was like, ‘All right. That explains it.’”

Kipnis was only 8 years old when Yankees icon Mariano Rivera debuted in the major leagues in 1995. But Kipnis – along with everyone else at Citi Field, from the dugouts to the third deck – knew that Tuesday’s All-Star Game was meant to serve a larger purpose. With Rivera set to retire after this season, Major League Baseball needed to honor his unrivaled achievement and eminence. A bunch of kids helped them do it.

Turns out, the sociologists are wrong: Generation Y does know history. At least, baseball’s Millennials do. Before the game, they talked about Rivera. After the game, they talked about Rivera. During the game, they participated in one of the classiest gestures in recent sports history: The All-Stars stood before their respective dugouts and joined the crowd of 45,186 in an ovation for the ages, as Rivera galloped regally from the bullpen and went through his warm-up tosses.

While Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blared, these 20-somethings were the grace notes. And Rivera, the veteran of perpetual postseason theatre on the other side of town, delivered precisely what the script needed: He pitched a perfect eighth inning to help preserve the AL’s 3-0 triumph.

“Not necessarily the baton being handed off, but on a day like today, at an All-Star Game, that’s what you get to appreciate,” said Kipnis, a first-time All-Star with the Cleveland Indians. “You get to (see) guys at the end of their careers who have been All-Stars the whole time, the middle guys, and the young guys coming up. That’s the best part: You get to see the faces of MLB.

“You get to appreciate the old, the young, and the new. You see (Manny) Machado fire one from deep third, and you see Mariano go 1-2-3. If you’re a baseball fan, this is why you watch the game.”

Amen. For a few hours, Mariano and his Merry Men transported us to a time long before the word “Biogenesis” entered the sports lexicon. Rarely has a group of young, wealthy athletes showcased their own talents so selflessly. Even with birthdates in ’90 or ’91 or ’92, they knew when it was time to put down their smartphones and marinate in the moment.

The sentiment hardly stopped at the AL dugout steps. The National League hitters Rivera set down in order smiled about it afterward.

“When I saw Mariano come in, and saw I was hitting third, I was really excited,” said Milwaukee’s Carlos Gomez, who grounded to shortstop on a cut fastball (of course) to end the inning. “To have that experience, face the best closer ever, be the last at-bat for him, the last out in the All-Star Game – I made history. That video, he’s going to have it in his house. I’m going to be the last out.

“It’s really exciting and good for me – even when I (made) an out.”

Each hitter Rivera faced in the eighth – Jean Segura, 23; Allen Craig, 28; and Gomez, 27 – was a first-time All-Star making his first plate appearance of the night. “It’s one of those moments I’ll never forget,” said Craig, who flew out to deep left. “I know it was extremely special for him. But it was special for the guys who got to face him, too.”

We may never again see a relief pitcher with Rivera’s combination of magnetism and big-game excellence. But several players in this All-Star Game – the dominant Miguel Cabrera, wunderkinds Machado, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout – are capable of all-time greatness in their own pursuits. Tuesday night, they saw the reward that could await them if they maintain sublime performances on the field and dignity in their lives.

When Rivera spoke with his AL teammates before the game, he delivered a simple yet powerful message. “What I said was I was honored, and it was a privilege for me to play with all of them for so many years,” Rivera said. “This is my 13th year as an All-Star. For many of them, it was their first one. I told them to make sure they enjoy it, because it goes fast.”

Apparently, they listened. Trout ripped Matt Harvey’s first pitch for a double to right field. Cabrera doubled and scored the AL’s first run. Machado made a sparkling play at third base. On the NL side, Marlins rookie right-hander Jose Fernandez announced his arrival to the worldwide stage by retiring Dustin Pedroia, Cabrera and Chris Davis in order. Harvey, the 24-year-old sensation, pleased the home crowd with two scoreless innings.

But as far as history is concerned, Kansas City’s Salvador Pérez – a 23-year-old catcher from Valencia, Venezuela – might have had the best debut among the first-time All-Stars. Once Rivera doffed his cap to the eternal ovation – once, twice, a third time – Pérez emerged from the dugout to receive one of the most anticipated warm-up sessions ever. When Rivera was ready for his All-Star finale, Pérez jogged out to the mound.

“We were talking about the signs,” Pérez said later. “That’s easy. Just one sign. Just the cutter. That’s the only one. He told me, ‘It’s easy to catch me. Cutter down and away. Cutter inside.’ Easy.”

Sixteen cutters later, the inning was over. The two met near the mound for one more conversation. Pérez told Rivera how happy he was to catch his last All-Star Game. Rivera told Pérez that he had many more All-Star appearances in his future. “That’s why we’re here,” Pérez said, “for building the history of baseball.” And really, that was the beauty of Tuesday night. We don’t know if the younger generation has someone who will be revered in the way Rivera is today. But now they know what it takes.