Exit Sandman

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Willie Mays, the greatest player ever to lace up a pair of cleats, was a shell of himself when he said goodbye to America. He was wearing a Mets uniform by then, and all you could do was celebrate the career of a man whose time had long since passed.

No so Mariano Rivera.

It’s so rare to see an athlete go out on top, especially a star baseball player, who will play until he’s 40-something and won’t take off the uniform until his final team tells him he can’t wear it anymore. Time’s up. You’re done.

Dodgers_Sandy_Koufax_2013-300x237The only other ballplayer I can remember leaving at the top was Sandy Koufax, who won 27 games for the Dodgers in 1966 and led the league in everything (his ERA was a ridiculous 1.73 and he struck out 317). Sandy collected his unprecedented third Cy Young Award that fall and walked away from the game. He was 30-years-old.

But Sandy retired because his doctors told him his gifted left arm was seriously arthritic, and it would become essentially useless if he continued pitching.

I reckon these days he’d have Tommy John surgery, or something, and come back and win 30 games two years later. But that wasn’t possible in 1966.

So Sandy called it quits.

But Sandy was the only one. All the other greats saw their skills erode before they retired.

All but Mo.

I’m a Mets fan, so I’m genetically wired to root for the Yankees lose 162 games every season.

But when Mo took the mound, even I had to root for him. You have to admire greatness.

The greatest closer in history — and one of the greatest pitchers ever — threw his last pitch in Yankee Stadium yesterday. And he did it in a Yankee uniform, the only one he ever wore. And his teammates through all those years, Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte, took him out of the game.

The Yanks have three more games to play, and they will be meaningless — the Pinstripes are gloriously out of the postseason. So I hope they don’t use Mo in any of them, unless they want to let him play centerfield for an inning.

He went out last night on top, where he belongs. Click the picture below and see for yourself.

— 30 —

Say it ain’t so, dad

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This is back in 1995, when my younger son, Ben, was 10 years old, and we sent him down to Florida to visit his grandparents.

His grandpa took him to a spring training game in Fort Myers — either the Twins or Red Sox vs. the visiting Yankees — and Ben did what all 10-year-olds do in those circumstances. He got as close as he could and begged for autographs.

One player in a Yankees uniform complied.

Ben came home with the autographed ball a week later and showed it to me.

I regarded the signature and said:

“Ben, I’ve never heard of him. He’s a minor leaguer. The ball isn’t worth anything.

And Ben sighed, and he decided the ball WAS worth something. It was worth what all baseballs are worth.

And he took it outside and played with it. And played with it. And we played catch and we hit it and it scuffed in the grass and it went in the mud and it scraped the pavement and before you knew it, the stitches were ripping and the signature was gone.

And that’s why Ben no longer has a baseball autographed by Andy Pettitte in his rookie year.

Today, 18 years later, Andy Pettitte announced his retirement.

My friend Zach swears he’s a future Hall of Famer. I don’t agree, but I’ll concede he comes close.

And Ben has no autographed baseball.

Sorry, son. My fault.

— 30 —