Mo won’t be back right away as old timer

One of the nice things about Sunday’s annual reunion known around Yankee Stadium as Old-Timers’ Day was watching Mariano Rivera, 43 but not yet an old-timer, connect with so many of the veterans who took part in the event. This is Mo’s final season in the majors and he is taking a stop-and-smell-the-roses approach to every day of the year.

So as the collection of former Yankees standouts from different eras made their way onto the field for practice before the three-inning exhibition game, Rivera made the rounds and talked to nearly every one of them. There were stars from the 1950s (Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Dr. Bobby Brown, Jerry Coleman, Don Larsen), the 1960s (Bobby Richardson, Joe Pepitone, Hector Lopez, Mel Stottlemyre, Gene Michael), 1970s (Reggie Jackson, Lou Piniella, Roy White, Bucky Dent, Mickey Rivers), 1980s (Willie Randolph, Goose Gossage, Rickey Henderson, Steve Balboni, Lee Mazzilli) and 1990s (Paul O’Neill, David Cone, David Wells, Bernie Williams, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez). Each and every one received a handshake and a kind word from Rivera.

I was chatting in the Yankees dugout with former manager Stump Merrill when Mo sauntered over. Stump is on the mend from surgery for prostate cancer and was in great spirits. Mo got into the conversation and talked about his rehab from knee surgery last year. I kidded him about his being on the field with all the old-timers and that he was really a year early.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Well, you won’t be eligible for this game until next year when you’re officially retired,” I said.

“Oh, I won’t be coming back next year,” Rivera said.

“How come?” I wanted to know.

“That will be too soon,” he said. “That is why I am doing all these things at the different parks all year. This is the time for that. Next year will be all my time, time for my family, time to do many things I could not do because I was playing all summer. Maybe in two or three years I would like to come back. I have always enjoyed this day.”

It is a special day to savor and, frankly, it is now unique. When I first started covering baseball in the 1970s, most clubs held Old-Timers’ Days. The Yankees started the tradition in 1947 with a salute to Babe Ruth the year before he died. His memorable speech cemented the event as something to do on an annual basis. Joe DiMaggio’s relatively early retirement (he was 37 when he called it quits) helped keep the day special because so many Yankees fans looked forward to seeing him come back each year, put on a uniform and swat line drives. The same thing occurred for the next generation with Mickey Mantle and so on to the present.

Old-Timers’ Day is now strictly a Yankees event. Even the appearance of widows is a Yankees tradition, beginning originally with Claire Ruth and Eleanor (Lou) and continuing with Arlene (Elston) Howard, Jill (Billy) Martin, Diana (Thurman) Munson, Helen (Catfish) Hunter and Kay (Bobby) Murcer.

Other clubs such as the Cardinals, Dodgers, Giants and Cubs occasionally bring back old favorites for some special celebration but not as an annual exercise.

Nobody does it better than the Yankees.

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