In a remarkable career that will culminate in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Mariano Rivera has set the all-time standard for relief pitchers with 608 saves. In his long and admirable career Rivera has accomplished much, but the greatest achievement of all would be if he bounces back to ever become an All-Star pitcher again after tearing up his knee.
Not going to happen. Not at 42. Not with one foot in retirement even before this. It is doubtful that the New York Yankees’ icon will ever step on a big-league mound again except to throw out an honorary first pitch at Yankee Stadium one day in tribute to his fine career.
Rivera tore the ACL in his right knee the other day while fielding a fly ball during batting practice. Since people complain about everything, certainly some will criticize the fact that he was roaming the warning track in the first place. But this was part of Rivera’s regular routine. It was part of the way he worked to stay in shape.
“That doesn’t mean it was smart,” said Paul DeRogatis, a Boston Red Sox fan for the last half-centruy. “What was he doing shagging flies? I don’t like the Yankees, but I like Rivera.”
Red Sox fans would be the first to boo Rivera if he polished off Boston in a playoff game, but they also dreaded to see him coming. You can hate the Yankees, as all serious Red Sox fans do, and still have respect and admiration for a player like Rivera.
I’m not of the school that says Rivera was stupid to be grabbing flies. It wasn’t a high-pressure situation, more relaxing, even playful. When you come out of the bullpen and throw an inning or less at a time that alone may not keep you fit and trim. And those short-burst appearances from the pen were Rivera’s specialty. Few, if any, have ever done it better. Eighteen seasons into his Yankees career, the most famous athlete from Panama this side of Roberto Duran, has a lifetime 2.21 earned run average. He was a 12-time All-Star.
If you saw film footage or photos of Rivera’s face as he lay prostrate on the ground being attended to by medical personnel, there was little mystery about what he was feeling. If a grimace could talk, his facial expression was a mini-scream. Much was made of how maybe the injury wasn’t so bad because after he was lifted into a cart to be transported off the field, Rivera was spotted smiling.
Call the smile rueful, not a ha-ha, enjoy-the-moment smile. Rivera might well have been thinking, “So this is how it ends.”
The end it probably is for Rivera. Even with the advances in modern science over the good old days, a torn anterior cruciate ligament can be an iffy thing, requiring months of determined rehab. If Rivera, again at an advanced athletic age, was pretty much sure to retire after this season, does he really have it in him to go full-bore through the excruciating pain of the type of rehab it will take to get back to the majors?
Rivera going down also is part of the amazing trend of closers all around the big leagues going down with serious injuries this season. Just a sampling includes Ryan Madson, Andrew Bailey, and Drew Storen. The Yankees will have problems replacing Rivera this summer.
As far as a comeback goes, Rivera has nothing to prove. He’s beyond typical retirement age. He passed Trevor Hoffman for the all-time saves record last year. The only way Rivera ever throws another pitch for the Yankees is if he really, really wants to: If it comes down to pride and a refusal to retire on anything but his own terms.