It shouldn't end this way.
While shagging fly balls in batting practice yesterday, Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera slipped and suffered a knee injury. He was helped off the field, never a good sign. Late last night, it was revealed that he had torn his ACL, which fans of just about any sport know means the end of the season for the player in question. Add in his age (42) and his statements during the offseason suggesting that 2012 would be the end of his career, and it's hard not to think that we may not see Rivera take the mound again.
As a Red Sox fan, I ought to be heartless about this. The Sox are scuffling right now, and an opponent losing an elite relief arm can hardly hurt Boston's playoff chances. Throw in Rivera's career numbers against the Sox (2.80 ERA, 113 K in 119 IP, 54 saves), and it's easy to see this as a great opportunity, a gift from the baseball gods. But I can't look at it that way. And not just because the Yankees have David Robertson of the high socks and career 12.2 K/9 ready to replace him.
It's because on a warm spring day in 2005, Mariano Rivera smiled and tipped his cap.
Quick quiz: what do the Indians, Diamondbacks, Twins, and Red Sox have in common? They're the only teams to get a blown save off Rivera in the postseason. The Indians (1997), Diamondbacks (2001), and Twins (2004) each did it once. The Red Sox got to Rivera on consecutive nights in 2004, in the course of a League Championship Series you may have read about. To put this in perspective, Mariano's postseason line: 96 G, 141 IP, 11(!) ER, 110 K, 21 BB, 0.70 ERA, 42 SV. There's no such thing as an unbeatable closer, but Rivera was as close as we'll ever see. And in 2004, the Sox beat him. Twice.
The following April, by entertaining coincidence, the Red Sox home opener was against the Yankees. Boston would receive their first World Series rings since the Wilson Administration in front of their home crowd, and the hated rival they had defeated to acquire them. The fans took full advantage, booing every Yankee announced in the pregame. Except Rivera. Knowing that his blown saves had been the key to retaking the momentum of the ALCS, Fenway stood as one, and mock-cheered the hell out of Mo. He didn't get angry, he didn't simmer with the rage of his defeat. He smiled, laughed, and raised his cap to the Fenway crowd. There was no malice, no "laugh now, boys, we'll get you next time." Just the gracious acknowledgment that he'd been beaten, and another team got to celebrate. Mariano Rivera, to my incredible annoyance, turned out to be one classy (word I shouldn't use on this blog).
I've had a lot of fun hating the Yankees over the years. Even leaving aside the eternal blood feud between Boston and New York, and eight decades of playing second fiddle to the Damn Yankees, it's seemed like New York has gone out of their way to acquire easily hated players. Derek Jeter, somehow eternally overrated and aggravatingly clutch. Alex Rodriguez, member of the All-Century team as both a shortstop and a glove-slapping twerp. Paul O'Neill, who single-handedly kept New York water-cooler manufacturers in business for half a decade. Robinson Cano, who... man, I can't hate Robbie, he's so much fun to watch even when he's killing the Sox, and it aggravates me to no end.
But Rivera was always the exception. Even before that magnificent hat-tip, I could never find anything to dislike about Mariano beyond the fact that he was wearing the wrong uniform. The guy has (had?) one pitch. Just one pitch. But it was a pitch that ate hitters' souls. Shattered bats, shaking heads, celebrating Yanks. That's most of what I remember watching Mo pitch. A stone-cold assassin, single weapon in hand, calmly dispatching opposing teams. No Valverde hops, no Papelbon fist-pumps or dances. Just save after save after save, for 18 years.
That 18 years, more than anything, might be why I found myself tearing up watching Rivera discuss his injury, and the anguished tweets of Yankee fans last night. Remember how relatively safe we all felt with Pap on the mound to close things out? That relaxed, happy, now it's in the bag feeling? Papelbon put up a 197 ERA+ in his seven years with Boston, and only blew 29 saves, for an 89% save rate. Rivera put up a 206 ERA+ with 73 blown saves, the same 89% rate. For eighteen years. For basically any Yankee fan under the age of 35, Mariano Rivera has been a fact of life, like Social Security or 25-cent wings on trivia night. He's always been there, and now he's not. And that must be terrifying.
Don't get me wrong, I'm still rooting for the Yankees to go down this year, and go down hard. Same as every year. Yankee fans sad in October is a net good in my book. This isn't that. This is a legitimate legend of the sport, who might have to go out on terms not his own. Mariano Rivera isn't meant to go out having misplayed a fly ball during batting practice against the Royals. Legends can fade away, that's part of baseball. But to have one of the all-time greats taken away on something so random... Sports are meant to be an escape from the realities of life, a chance to watch demigods take the field and defy the limits of bodily existence. If Hall of Famers can be felled by a wrenched knee, what hope do the rest of us have?
Rivera might yet come back. He might decide he's got another season in him, and we can get right back to rooting against him. In fact, here's hoping he does. It just won't feel right seeing David Robertson coming in to pitch the ninth.