The best thing, maybe the only thing, to do about Mariano Rivera’s injury is to give thanks – not necessarily in the spiritual sense, as he is surely doing in his pain and shock, but in the humanistic sense for having seen the best relief pitcher in history in our lifetime.
What a joy, what a privilege, for all of us to watch him play, to know that nobody was ever this good, this long, this consistently, this overwhelmingly, at that task of saving games.
Numbers hardly count. He might be the highest example of sheer excellence in the American majors in our lifetime -- a phenomenon, one of a kind. Marilyn Monroe. Abraham Lincoln. Mo.
Seeing Mo, bounding out of the bullpen with that athlete’s stride, one did not have to be a Yankee fan to love it.
The legend was that Mo was the best athlete on the Yankees – a team with Jeter and Williams and Rodriguez. They all knew it, the way athletes know these things, the accepted pecking order.
They watched him dart unerringly to fly balls during the pre-game shagging. They marveled at the speed and agility. Mo could play center field, they said. In fact, there was talk of letting him play an inning out there, before his career ended. This respect came on a franchise that has seen Joe D and the Mick and Bernie glide through those meadows.
How weird that Mo went down while shagging flies, his ACL torn. He was giving hints about having made up his mind to retire after this season, so my first presumption was that he could use the familiar rituals of baseball injury – the surgery, the rehab, the pain, the stiffness, the guys in the clubhouse in the Bronx or Tampa, and then retire at the end of the year.
After all, he's done everything he could do. Let him regain that beautiful deer-like rhythm and lope home to Panama. Basta ya. Enough already.
But when he got to the clubhouse on Friday, Rivera defiantly said he'd be back, this year, next year, count on it. If Mo says he's coming back, I wish him luck. Meantime, we have the memories, more visual than statistical. The save totals and percentages and earned-run averages can be looked up. What remains is the impression.
The clang of Metallica playing "Enter Sandman" as the Yankee Stadium bullpen door opened – this from a highly religious man (a Christian who did not creep people out with repeated witnessing; he stated where he came from spiritually and then talked pitching.) Heavy metal as he bounded across the outfield grass. No chest-pounding, no gestures, no smoke coming out his ears. Just Mo.
He induced a respectful frustration from batters. They knew what was coming, a ball breaking down, close enough to the strike zone that they had to swing, had to beat the ball into the earth, producing what high-school players used to call a worm-killer, a grounder. And when he broke a record, the players in the opposing dugout applauded for the gentleman who transcended all rivalries, all frustrations, all wins and losses. Mo.
What a treat to be following baseball as player or fan or writer and see Mo excel from decade to decade, three different ones now. The Nineties. The Aughts. The Teens.
At some point, Yankee fans and non-Yankee fans coalesced on the realization that we were watching two greatest Yankees at their positions at the same time. Perhaps this happens on lesser franchises (that is to say, all other franchises are lesser.) But on this overwhelming franchise for nearly a century, their greatest shortstop and their greatest relief pitcher came along together from the minor leagues (with the Boss blessedly grounded for bad behavior, unable to blow it all up with his impatience.)
There was Cap’n Derek, hitting a double and clapping his hands in exhortation, and there was Mo, with his spare, lethal effectiveness.
Mo has been more than a presence on the field, on the tube. He has been a presence in the clubhouse, too. He doesn't gossip much with reporters but in the large clubhouse in spring training he would speak softly and joke around with his fellow pitchers who dressed around him. The wise ones listen.
A couple of springs ago, a new pitcher – Spanish-speaking, at that – dressed near Mo. The new man did not listen. Looked the other way. Was in his own world. A colleague of mine caught that tableau and said, “That knucklehead doesn’t get it.”
One other thing. We are not going to have to rescind our opinion of Mo in a year or three because of scandal. His body never changed from the whippet rookie to the agile senior citizen. He is not going to be disgraced somewhere down the line like Roger Clemens, currently glowering in a courtroom in Washington.
Clemens is going to get off the hook because of the double inadequacy of the prosecution and the weak-mindedness of Andy Pettitte. Little Andy dabbled in illegal substances when it suited him but ultimately could not make up his mind what Big Rog told him in their gym sessions. Having doubts on the witness stand is bad form. You either know something or you don’t. Pettitte looks foolish, Clemens will get off the hook, but everybody knows what was going down in Clemens’ life.
This will never happen with Mo. He needs to rehabilitate his ACL but not his image. He was and remains exactly what we thought – a clean flame burning in the ninth inning, eradicating trouble, one-two-three. We have been able to watch. That is worth a cosmic thank-you.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.