Imagining the Ninth Inning Without Its Star
NY TIMES Published: May 4, 2012
Of course it should not end like this. For Mariano Rivera, the most dignified, humblest star in sports, it should end with a championship celebration, swarmed by joyous Yankees teammates, basking again in glory. That is the fairy tale, but with Rivera, who defied age and injury and decline for so long, it always seemed possible.
Even if Rivera were to lose his final game, well, we have seen that before, too. His rare failures humanized him. If another team had beaten Rivera in the normal course of competition, even in October, it would not have hurt this way.
This just feels so incongruous, Rivera crumpling to the ground on the warning track during batting practice, in the fading sunlight of Kansas City. Nobody ever thinks of Rivera on the warning track — or in Kansas City, for that matter. He chases fly balls before almost every game, gliding carefree across lawns all over the majors, but few have ever paid much attention. Rivera’s time comes at the end, not the beginning, of the baseball day.
The initial diagnosis of a torn right anterior cruciate ligament — plus meniscus damage, Rivera told reporters — was devastating. There are hopeful precedents, like Milwaukee’s Yovani Gallardo, who tore his A.C.L. on May 1, 2008, and came back later that year to start Game 1 of the playoffs. But the injury probably ends Rivera’s season, and perhaps his career. He is unsigned past this season and said this spring that he had made up his mind about whether to continue for 2013.
Nothing could change his decision, Rivera said then, without revealing what it was. But retirement seemed the clear option, and when asked by reporters Thursday night if he would ever pitch again, Rivera, 42, said he did not know.
Understand this about Rivera: his career plans are never assured, whatever he says. After the 1999 season, Rivera told the congregation at a church service in his native Panama that he would retire after four more years to become a preacher. A decade later, at Yankee Stadium in the afterglow of the 2009 title, he said he wanted to pitch five more years.
Rivera, of course, is deeply spiritual. He says often that everything happens for a reason, and that he serves God above all. Now, almost certainly, his decision on his future will be tied directly to how he interprets what happened in Kansas City. Was it a sign that he should retire? Or a sign that he has more work to do?
Either way, Rivera will have to rehabilitate the knee. For any competitor, it helps to have a goal in mind to slog through the monotonous process. The prospect of returning could drive Rivera. It is just too soon to tell.
Unquestionably, he is the best closer in major league history. His 2.21 career earned run average is the lowest, with a minimum of 1,000 innings, since 1920. He has the most career saves, with 608 — plus 42 in the postseason, to match his uniform number.
Joe Torre, the manager for most of Rivera’s career, always said that the postseason elevated Rivera over everyone else. The evidence is staggering. At a time when the stakes are highest, and the competition is strongest, the man with the best E.R.A. of the live-ball era is actually better. By a lot.
Rivera’s postseason E.R.A. is 0.70. He has not allowed a postseason home run in 81 innings, since Jay Payton in the 2000 World Series, in a game the Yankees won. Rivera’s ability to pitch multiple innings in October, the way the pioneering closers did, has made him invaluable.
And yet, in some postseasons — especially 2002, 2006 and 2011 — Rivera has not had a chance to influence the outcome. As much as we glorify the modern closer, a team must first get a lead for his job to really matter. The Yankees can win without Rivera because their offense should get a lot of leads, and most closers convert a very high percentage of save chances.
Dave Robertson is a premier setup man, a strikeout artist who seems to thrive under stress. Rafael Soriano earned 45 saves for a playoff team in 2010, with Tampa Bay. So the Yankees have options, and they could always shift the struggling starter Phil Hughes to the bullpen to add depth there.
Even so, Rivera’s shadow will loom over his successor. All of his flaws have been forgiven — has anyone in any sport failed as emphatically as Rivera did in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, and gotten a free pass? When Robertson or Soriano blows a save, it will be set, inevitably, against the backdrop of Rivera’s greatness.
One championship will fix that; when Manager Joe Girardi won in 2009, he escaped whatever shadow Torre left. But the pursuit of the Yankees’ next title has gotten harder, with a rotation that looks ragged and a bullpen without Rivera — for now, anyway.
If this is really it, and that sickening fall at the Kansas City warning track is the final image of Rivera in uniform, take a close look at the words on the billboard he tumbles into. It is a Budweiser ad, but for some reason the tagline says, “Walk Off a Hero.”
Rivera could not walk off the field in Kansas City. But as a baseball hero, he will always walk tall. He does not need to come back to prove it.