Jeff Pearlman: Mariano Rivera, the best pitcher we have seen, could be out of the game
He says Rivera, who got a bad knee injury, has collected a stunning record
He says he's an admirable baseball hero, dignified, decent with rivals, teammates, fans
Pearlman: Rivera has hinted at quitting to do other work in his life; he says he'll be fine
Let’s not be simple here.
Let’s not do what the TV talking heads at the sports networks are required to do. Let’s not blather on about the Red Sox and the Rays and the American League East and whether the Yankees, minus their great closer, Mariano Rivera – who was injured this week – can still survive in baseball’s toughest division and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
To those who have not heard: Thursday evening was quite possibly a landmark moment in the history of Major League Baseball; an Elvis-has-died, the-Wall-has-fallen, there’s-some-new-movie-called-“Casablanca” sliver in time that will permanently dent the long and storied history of America’s great game.
In short: The best pitcher any of us has ever seen is, in all likelihood, done.
Yes, it needs to be said. Twice. Three times. Mariano Rivera, the Yankees’ unparalleled 42-year-old closer, is the greatest pitcher of our lifetime. Better than Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton. Better than Tom Seaver and Greg Maddux. Better than Dwight Gooden in 1985, Pedro Martinez in 1999, Justin Verlander in 2011.
In and of themselves, Rivera’s numbers are dizzying: an all-time record 608 saves (and 42 more in the postseason), a 2.21 ERA, five World Series titles, 12 All-Star Game appearances. Yet Rivera – truly the Cy Young of the modern game – is solely about statistics the way a Maybach is solely about miles per hour.
When the native Panamanian crumpled to the ground at Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium, his right knee buckling while chasing a fly ball during the team’s batting practice, the majors lost its idealized and perfect figurine.
Throughout the course of the long, bitter Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, Boston’s loyalists have loathed the pinstriped intruders with unyielding contempt. Reggie Jackson was too cocky, Graig Nettles too combative, Thurman Munson too gruff, Derek Jeter too pretty, Alex Rodriguez too duplicitous. Pick a Yankee – any Yankee – and Boston’s denizens could find ample reason to damn said person to hell (Hey, Claudell Washington, yooouuu suck!).
Yet Rivera, even at his absolute best, when his split-fingered fastball was sawing off bats and numbing opposing hitters, was never hate-able. Or even dislikeable. Or mildly irksome.
Throughout his 18 big league seasons, there is not one piece of video showing Rivera talking smack to an opposing player, showing up a hitter or blowing off an autograph request. When asked about rival closers (even Jonathan Papelbon, the crybaby former Red Sox righty), he was always complimentary and deferential.
Immediately following Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, when the Diamondbacks’ Luis Gonzalez singled off Rivera to drive in the winning run, the closer took his turn at the podium, answering question after question, congratulating Arizona, accepting blame for the loss and offering up exactly, oh, zero excuses.
Toward the beginning of this season, Rivera hinted that his career might finally be ending. Though hardly Mr. Loquacious, he spoke of wanting to do other things, of devoting more time to his church and various charities (In 2012, The Giving Back Fund estimated that Rivera donated $627,500 to charity, ranking him the 25th-most generous celebrity). Of stepping away from the mound and uncovering different purposes in life.
Always a proud, regal man, after he was hurt Thursday, Rivera told reporters that, were the knee injury to mean he could no longer pitch, he would be fine. “I never will second guess or question the Lord,” he said. “It happened for a reason and you just have to deal with it.”
Even when no one – even a Red Sox fan – wants to.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeff Pearlman.