The joke among the Yankees for the past 18 seasons is that the best center fielder on the team is Mariano Rivera. The great Rivera did not run stadium stairs or grind out miles on the treadmill to keep his body lean and fit. He shagged balls in center field during batting practice, the way Ron Guidry, another lithe, athletic Yankee pitcher did.
"Oh, every day," he told me in Baltimore one night when I remarked to him about the joy of his routine being so apparent, like a Labrador chasing a tennis ball. "Every day I do that. I'm still doing the same thing I did in 1995."
All these years, during batting practice and in the ninth inning, Rivera turned the extraordinary into routine. He just kept going, and even at age 42 this year looked like he would be the rare great athlete who would go out on his own terms without ever subjecting us to the disappointment of a decline phase. In our mind's eye there was only one Rivera -- the great one. We never saw a diminished one.
And so the pictures of a fallen, anguished Rivera last night -- the ACL in his right knee torn -- were shocking. They delivered a blow to anyone who not only roots for the Yankees, but also, given Rivera's gentlemanly bearing, for sportsmanship and dignity. The knee blew out with one misstep while chasing a flyball in center field during batting practice in Kansas City. There always was a boyishness about the act of chasing practice flyballs. What kept him in shape cut him down.
The injury raises the possibility that we may never see Rivera throw his cutter again, given the hints Rivera had dropped about this season possibly being his last.
(There is a slight possibility that Rivera has one more October left in him -- that he could chisel more digits off his 0.70 postseason ERA. Brewers pitcher Yovani Gallardo also suffered a torn right ACL-- a righthander's push-off knee -- on May 1, 2008. He was back to start a game Sept. 24 that year, and started a Division Series game.
But Gallardo was 22 then -- 20 years younger than is Rivera -- and Rivera is thought to have suffered not just a torn ACL but also a torn meniscus, which complicates his recovery. And if Rivera does need more than six months of rehab, would he want to come back in 2013?)
Rivera is definitively the best at his position by a wider margin than any player at any position in the history of baseball. There is Rivera, a gulf, and then every other closer. Sure, David Robertson can pitch the ninth inning. But how do the Yankees not miss Rivera? They will miss the certainty he brings, the counsel he gives, the conscience he brings the team as a man of humility and faith.
If indeed Rivera's success is, as he believes, derived from an act of God -- the cutter, he has said, is a blessing bestowed upon him one day in 1997 -- then he will accept this injury, too, as God's will. To see him in that cart that took him off the field was to see a man not broken but at peace. The look of willful acceptance was similar to the one minutes after he blew Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, when he stood at his locker and answered the same questions over and over with patience and grace. Whether he pitches again or not, he will always be the great Rivera, and nothing less.