By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns
If Mariano Rivera’s retirement announcement Saturday was the worst-kept secret in baseball over the last couple of weeks, this fact was even wider known.
Mo did more with one pitch than most pitchers do with four.
That’s what fans should miss most about this 43-year-old wonder; that cut fastball, sawing off one bat after another, causing hitters to flail helplessly as Rivera spotted it to all the corners of the plate. Nobody did it with Mo’s regularity. And guess what? The next Rivera isn’t waiting in the Yankees’ farm system, or the Mets’, or the Royals’ or anyplace else in baseball.
He was a singular entity, a once-in-a-lifetime guy. And that means whoever the Yanks find to replace him will represent a huge step downward. They may be effective, as Rafael Soriano was last year, but they’ll never be his equal because only he could turn one, single pitch into an assault against nature.
Everybody in the park knew the cutter was coming. He might mix in an occasional fastball, but those pitches never impressed anyone. Just a slight change of pace here and there, certainly nothing approaching the mid-90s heat other closers use to get the job done in the ninth. No, Rivera owned the cutter, and the cutter owned the American League since 1995, when he started making his bones as John Wetteland’s setup man.
Unfortunately, Father Time has taken its toll on the cutter, a pitch absolutely no one should confuse with a knuckleball. Even though it isn’t thrown with the force of a 95 MPH fastball, it’s still not that easy a toss. After all, Rivera was still hitting 91 as of Saturday. It’s not a pitch that allows hurlers to go on and on forever. The fact that Rivera made it this far, to this age, is remarkable in itself.
But Rivera admitted, quite understandably, that he’s running on fumes. It took just about every drop left in the gas tank to come back from last year’s ACL surgery, and whatever remains will be consumed by the energy it takes to go out and add to his record saves total.
So Rivera gives us this one, final year to remember and appreciate what he and that nasty pitch of his gave to the Yankees. They won championships because of it. His mastery of the pitch earned Rivera almost pope-like infallibility in the ninth inning, sometimes an out or two longer.
And can anyone argue with his poise? He was the rock-face of the Yankees, wearing one expression whether he was mowing down the ninth 1-2-3 or fighting to get out of potential disasters.
We have Rivera for one more year, one more season of watching that amazing man throw his one, amazing pitch. We will hold our collective breath and hope another injury doesn’t befall him to cut his farewell tour short, for Rivera will certainly end it all after this year. So there will be a certain scariness to it all because, really, who wants to bear witness to his last pitch unless it comes to close out the final game of a World Series championship.
The truly scary part will come after the last pitch, whenever that happens. It is the one guarantee the Yanks have, and it’s not a good one: Whoever follows Rivera won’t be as good as he was.
They won’t bring the same class. They can’t, because Mo is a special human being. Few athletes bring the humility to their greatness that Rivera has throughout his career.
They won’t be automatic like Mo. They can’t be, because Rivera was the greatest of them all. Even the very good ones these days walk the tightrope, and it’s nothing to see them blow the occasional save. Some even go into slumps where they can’t buy a save. Rivera? If he blew two straight opportunities, fans regarded it as a precursor to the end of the world.
That’s how badly Rivera spoiled us. With a little luck, he’ll keep us spoiled rotten until the end of the season with one more thrill at a time, allowing opposing hitters to add to that ever-growing pile of splintered lumber.
Everyone has an expiration date. Rivera believes his has arrived.
Only those who don’t live in Rivera’s body thought it would never come.
Are you worried about life after Mo? Be heard in the comments…