Mariano Rivera Has Come Unstuck In Time

A devastating event befell Major League Baseball last night.  Mariano Rivera, age 42, tore his ACL last night during his pre-game warm up ritual of running down fly balls during batting practice.  To me, ‘devastating’ is the only word to aptly describe it.  As a Yankee fan, the feeling that came after hearing the official report that Rivera was done for the season was nothing like the one several weeks ago when Michael Pineda went down.  That was frustration, disappointment about the blow to our would-be future ace, and some worry about what it would mean for the season going forward.  This event is so much greater than any impact it may have on the 2012 season.  It was gut-wrenching exasperation.  He was supposed to ride out into the sunset a hero to all, the very picture of a legendary talent and a class act through and through.

Last night’s awkward landing forces us to reflect on the career of the greatest relief pitcher of all time.

Rivera has since announced that he will be making every effort to return from his injury to pitch again, but the impact has already been made.  The closer role for the New York Yankees is in transition for the first time since Mo took over the role from John Wetteland in 1997.  The realization that Mariano Rivera is not a permanent fixture at the back-end of the bullpen has been forced on us.   It seems strange that we need to marvel at one of the oldest players in Major League Baseball suffering a season-ending injury.  After all, professional athletes- pitchers in particular- put tremendous amounts of wear on their body, and this guy has been in the big leagues for 18 years.  Of course it was apparent that his career couldn’t go on forever, but it sure did feel like that was a possibility.

This just speaks to what an incredible athlete Mariano Rivera is.  The man has been the picture of consistency, much of the time seeming unhittable.  Since taking over the closer role, he has failed to record at least 30 saves in a season only once.  He finished with an Earned Run Average (ERA) under 2.00 an incredible 11 times.  His playoff ERA sits at a mind-boggling 0.70 over the course of 96 games.  He is the all-time leader in saves.  I could go on, but to write only about his statistical accomplishments- amazing as they may be- feels like an empty gesture in the wake of his injury.

He is so much more than the story his numbers tell.  That dominance has meant that for the greater part of the last two decades the New York Yankees have had the luxury of only needing to concern themselves with establishing a lead in the first eight innings, and being able to relax as they heard Enter Sandman blaring through the stadium with complete confidence that the victory was as good as theirs.

Beyond his greatness on the mound, Rivera has always stayed down to Earth off the field and knows what his priorities are.  Even reflecting on a rare moment of seeming human during the 2001 World Series, when he blew a save in game seven against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Rivera was able to keep his perspective.  In Buster Olney’s 2004 book The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, a story of his reaction to game seven is recounted:

“The victory parade that would have taken the Yankees up New York City’s Canyon of Heroes for the fifth time in six years was canceled, so Enrique Wilson, the team’s utility infielder, decided to change his flight home. He was supposed to return to the Dominican Republic on Nov. 12, eight days after the end of the World Series, but moved up his departure a few days. He was at home when he heard that American Airlines Flight 587 – the plane he was supposed to be on – had crashed in Belle Harbor, a neighborhood in Queens. Two hundred and sixty-five people were killed in an accident that shook a city still reeling from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

When Wilson saw Mariano Rivera in spring training the next year, the reliever expressed great relief that Wilson was still alive. If Rivera had held the lead against Arizona, Wilson would likely have been on Flight 587. “I am glad we lost the World Series,” Rivera told Wilson, “because it means that I still have a friend.” For Rivera, this was further confirmation that they were all subject to God’s will.”

He is a man of unshakable faith and tremendous class.  For 18 years, he has come out and thrown his signature cutter to batters.  For 18 years, it has  baffled even the best hitters and left forests of broken bats in its wake.   His legacy will surely live on well beyond his playing years- but if he has anything to say about it, that time is not here yet.  Regardless of who you root for, it is imperative that we pay respect to an all-time talent and stellar individual.

Get well soon, Mo.  We’ll see you next year in the ninth.