BY BROOKS HOLTON – SPORTS EDITOR
On July 16, 2013 New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera trotted out of the Citi Field bullpen for his last appearance in a Major League Baseball all-star game. Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” – his trademark entrance song since its release in 1999 – thundered over the public address system. Baseball fans, both in attendance and around the world, greeted the all-time saves leader with a standing ovation. After recovering from a knee injury during the offseason, Rivera announced during Spring Training that the 2013 campaign, his 19th season of professional baseball, would be his last. Throughout the 162-game farewell tour, the closer was given gifts from opposing teams as he made his final rounds to ballparks all over the country. In Cleveland, the Indiana partnered with the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame to present Rivera with a golden record of “Enter Sandman.” The Minnesota Twins gave him a chair made entirely out of broken bats, many broken personally by the Panamanian’s notorious cutter. In his final relief appearance at Yankee Stadium, the umpires allowed manager Joe Girardi to delegate his substation duties to long-time teammates Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter, who ceremoniously went to the mound to pull Rivera as a final tearful goodbye.
The Rivera Farewell Tour of 2013 stands out for a number of reasons. It was the first time in recent memory that an athlete in any sport has come out and announced their retirement to the public with the regular season yet to unfold. From that moment on, the season wasn’t simply about winning and losing games; it became a tribute, an opportunity to parade around the legend of “Enter Sandman” for all that it was worth before No. 42 rode off into the sunset. And, after seeing the respect and reverence with which Rivera’s final season was handled, other athletes have begun to follow suit.
For the sake of conversation, we’ll jump past the 2014 Derek Jeter Farewell Tour – mostly because it was Rivera-mania on steroids – and move into 2016. On April 13, Los Angeles Lakers and NBA legend Kobe Bryant played his last professional basketball game before a sold-out Staples Center. ABC News reported that nosebleed seats in the arena could sell as high as $700. In Boston, the Red Sox are seven games into the David Ortiz Farewell Tour. The designated hitter and postseason hero was already honored in a ceremony during his last Spring Training game in Ft. Myers. With countless road trips to ballparks across the league and the All Star Game in July, the celebration has no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
But is the pageantry of a Farewell Tour really worth it? Some would argue that announcing retirement before the start of a season gives athletes peace of mind; that they would rather be paraded around and revered by the sporting community than be troubled by the media questioning if this is their last go-around. It makes sense, especially in the case of the aforementioned athletes, who have committed fifteen-plus years of grueling athletic training and competition to the sports they love. Their bodies are done, and one last season in the spotlight of a Farewell Tour doesn’t hurt from a merchandising perspective, either.
On the flip side, some might argue that announcing a Farewell Tour, rather than giving players peace of mind, thrusts them further into the public eye. Instead of getting a few questions periodically asking if they will be calling it quits at the end of the year, their retirement is the only thing news outlets will focus on. By defining a season as your one last go-around before it’s even started, you create a narrative that will run parallel to the larger, team-based narrative of the regular season. In some cases, the Farewell Tour/player legacy narrative is so grand that it overtakes the team and what really happens on the field. When Lakers fans reflect on the 2015-2016 season, they won’t remember it as the year the team failed to win more than 20 games, but as the season their beloved Black Mamba graced the court for the final time. Is that fair to the team? Is this Kobe Bryant, David Ortiz, Derek Jeter, or Mariano Rivera saying their careers are bigger than the success of the organizations that allowed them to reach stardom?
Personally, while the Farewell Tour can be overdone at times, I think all four athletes have had careers worthy of some celebration during their final seasons. I would not turn the regular season into a traveling circus of gifts and constant questioning of players’ legacies (good and bad), but as long as the headliner of the tour is deserving and teams stick to heartfelt, genuine moments like sending Pettitte and Jeter to pull Rivera at Yankee Stadium, we as sports fans should be okay with the celebration.