By Steve Silverman
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Is this how it ends for The Great Rivera?
It doesn’t seem right. If anyone is deserving of having a closing lap around the American League where he can feature his devastating cutter and magnificent fastball one more time, it’s Mariano Rivera.
Instead, it seems quite possible that his sensational career may have come to an end slumped against the center field fence in Kansas City after taking a misstep while shagging fly balls during his pregame routine.
No need to second guess here, because Rivera has been taking fly balls before games throughout his career. His remarkable athletic ability gave him a natural grace when chasing down fly balls and his enjoyment of the exercise was obvious. He regularly joked with manager Joe Girardi about his desire to get some time patrolling center field before his career came to an end.
When you are a closer, you have a lot of down time as you prepare for your big moments. During that down time, Rivera put his athletic ability to use by going after fly balls. It’s something that most pitchers will do on at least a semi-regular basis.
If Rivera is to come back, he will have to go through a significant rehab period and that’s a lot more difficult for an athlete in his early 40’s than it is for one in his 20s or 30s. There was a lot of speculation that Rivera might call it a career at the end of the 2012 season. Of course, he probably pictured that end coming after recording the final out of the World Series, and not on an early May evening in Kansas City.
Rivera may want his final lap around the track. Perhaps he is willing to do all the work needed to recover and rehab from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee. He might even try to beat the odds and get back before the end of the season. But when you are 42 years old, the recovery process can get complicated. Exercises and effort associated with the process don’t come easily. Even the most remarkable athletes find out that the body does not respond the way it once did when a barrier like 40 years (or 42) has been crossed.
There is no doubt about Rivera’s status in the game’s history. He is the greatest closer in the history of the game. Rivera has distanced himself from the greatest closers in the game’s history because of his unflinching consistency, toughness and his remarkable cutter. Rich “Goose” Gossage may very well have been the most intimidating closer in the history of the game. Dennis Eckersley was sensational in his control and consistency. Lee Smith and Trevor Hoffman were outstanding closers who dominated against the best hitters in the game. Even Sparky Lyle had his moments. All of them should get down on bended knee and genuflect in the direction of Rivera.
The distance between Rivera and his peers at the closing position is similar to the distance between Jerry Rice the next group of wide receivers. Picture Rivera and Rice swimming around the 12-foot end of the pool, while those who would challenge them are splashing in the water no more than waist-high.
While Cooperstown has been hesitant to bestow Hall of Fame honors on many of the game’s best relievers, the red carpet and a prominent seat on the stage will be reserved for Rivera five years after his career comes to an end. They should probably think about giving him his own wing in the Hall. That’s how good he has been.
The greatest moments in the history of the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Boston Red Sox took place when Rivera was on the mound. When the Diamondbacks mounted a comeback in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the 2001 World Series, it was Luis Gonzalez’s scratch hit over a drawn in infield that brought home the winning run. The Great Rivera was so dominant that the key hit was one that barely got over the outstretched arm of Derek Jeter.
The Red Sox were facing the pain of a four-game sweep against the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series with Rivera on the mound and pinch runner Dave Roberts on first base for Kevin Millar, who had reached base on a walk. The only way the Red Sox were going to have a chance was if Roberts could steal second. Rivera almost picked off Roberts before he managed to steal second by the thinnest of margins. Bill Mueller followed with a single up the middle, Roberts scored and the Red Sox would eventually get a victory that would lead to a miracle comeback.
The point is that in both of those games, Rivera was taken down by the thinnest of margins. Nobody hits Mo hard in crucial situations. None of the other relievers can say that. George Brett bashed Gossage. Kirk Gibson got Eckersley. Smith and Hoffman had a number of big failures and who can forget Dick Allen turning around old Sparky’s slider.
Rivera may want his last lap around the track. He certainly has earned it.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy).