By Jason Keidel
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As the sun rises on another Subway Series, time to tip the cap to the only player available for duty who has been around for them all.
He, of course, is Mariano Rivera, the Final 42, sui generis of any generation, the man whose mythology isn’t hyperbole. To list his bona fides is to not only insult him and you, but also his peers, since he has none.
The laconic, iconic pitcher is having arguably his best season, which is saying quite something considering he is the physical example and spiritual exemplar at the position, the de facto logo, like Jerry West. Like West, Rivera is the rare creature about whom everyone agrees. Indeed, Buster Olney said that there’s more separation between Rivera and the rest than there is for any player at any position in any sport.
His lazy windup, like a lion rising from a nap, his toe tapping the mound three times, and his flawless, effortless delivery, has been as stable, singular, and scintillating this year as it was in 1997, when the Mets and Yanks spawned their rivalry beyond the back pages.
After a century of baseball, pitching is still about perception, and hitters still can’t reconcile Rivera’s peaceful delivery with the violent pitch that pops from his right hand. Batters still can’t catch up to his signature pitch, no matter how many mph have melted off. And he throws just the one. The cutter. Which still shatters wood, leaving the bewildered batter trotting to first with a splintered knob in his fist.
And he’s retiring? With all due respect, and no man in the history of sports is due more, I don’t think so.
An athlete’s concession to age and wage is the most ephemeral of all, and when you ponder Mo’s pitching this season – 18 saves in 18 chances, a microscopic 1.40 ERA, an 8-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio – it’s almost impossible to take him at his word, which is as reliable as his cutter.
The dearth of dignified retirements suggest that he will return, unretire, or renounced his retirement before it begins. The air is most thin among the sporting luminaries who left while at their physical and metaphysical apex. Jim Brown. Barry Sanders. Rocky Marciano. Anyone else?
As a Yankees fan for 35 years, I selfishly want Rivera to return, as a practical, palpable baseball insurance policy, knowing that the best reliever in history is historically good, even by his stratospheric standards. Only three active pitchers under 30 have at least 100 saves. And only one of them, Houston Street, has 200. Rivera’s Secretariat-like lead on the pack is only growing. Nothing has changed. His delivery. His demeanor. His deity. His dominance.
And if it were anyone but the immortal Mariano, we’d laugh his assertion off the back page. But Rivera is a man of such conviction and religion that his sincerity surrounds him like a symbolic nimbus.
Too many of us cringe at the cadre of former icons who limp into the sunset, from Willie Mays stumbling on the Shea grass to Unitas pummeled in a Chargers uniform to my hero, Muhammad Ali, being brutalized by a far inferior Larry Holmes.
For every athlete before Rivera, it took a lot more than a sense of timing to tear the jersey off his sweaty back. And it says here the same will apply to Mo. His age, 43, is the only statistical metric that speaks to anything but perfection.
No matter how perfect or pious he is, he’s human. And despite his religious bent, soft monotone, and hopelessly thick Panamanian accent, there’s a flame in his cool veins, and that fire will be the hardest to douse when he becomes more domesticated.
It’s altogether fitting and proper that Mariano is the Final 42. Jackie Robinson immortalized it, and Rivera romanticizes and retires it. Coincidentally, it matches his 42 playoff saves, another number that will never be worn again.
And once the calendar turns in 2014, he will miss his other altar, the place where we worship with him: the mound. His team and his town will call and cajole him, tweak and tickle his need to win, as he always has – with class, with no one in his class.
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