David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Mariano Rivera said in spring training he already knew if this season would be the last of his 18-year career.
What the future Hall of Famer did not envision, in every one of his imagined scenarios, is it all possibly ending on the warning track of Kauffman Stadium.
That's why Rivera will be back on a mound for the Yankees at some point before he starts the clock on Cooperstown -- if not this season, then 2013. It has to happen. Rivera deserves to go out with one last jog from the bullpen, one last burst of Metallica's "Enter Sandman, one last cut fastball, and finally, one last postgame celebration with his teammates.
A script as special as Rivera's needs that happy ending, anything but those painful images of him collapsing to the ground Thursday during batting practice in Kansas City. Moments after twisting on the warning track, clutching his right knee, Rivera forced a smile as he was carted past his stunned teammates.
Rivera made no attempts to hide the hurt later that night after he learned the grim prognosis of an anterior cruciate ligament tear, pretty much marking the end of his season. Fighting back tears, Rivera was asked the inevitable question: Would he ever pitch again?
"At this point, I don't know," he said. "We have to face this first."
Rivera has been on the disabled list four times, and not since 2003, but the long scar that runs along his right arm is a reminder of how it all began. Two years after signing with the Yankees in 1990, Rivera needed surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. He also had to fail first as a starter before being reborn as an unhittable relief pitcher, and finally as the best closer in baseball history.
That probably seems like a few lifetimes ago for Rivera, but the perseverance that carried him through those difficult early years remains in his DNA. Derek Jeter, who said in February he was privy to Rivera's secret plans, suggested Thursday's freak accident won't write the epitaph of the closer's career.
"I know how much he cares about coming here and doing his job," Jeter said. "He's going to work hard at his recovery. I'm no doctor, but I wouldn't be surprised if we see him back here this year."
Depending on what the Yankees' orthopedists say, that sounds like a longshot. After Thursday's 4-3 loss to the Royals, Joe Girardi described the ACL injury as "about as bad as it gets." As for the chance that it is season-ending, the manager said, "I've never seen anyone come back before that."
Rivera is 42, so that's obviously a factor in the healing process. But the same athleticism that allowed him to shag fly balls so effortlessly for nearly two decades could help him speed through the rehabilitation as well. Even Thursday's warning-track calamity, Rivera said he had no regrets.
"I don't want to have it any other way," Rivera said. "If it's going to happen like that, at least it happened doing what I love to do, and shagging I love to do. If I had to do it over again, I would do it again, no hesitation.
"There's reasons why it happens. You have to take it the way it is and fight. Fight through it."
Rivera has had tough times before. There was Sandy Alomar Jr. in a Division Series Game 4 at Jacobs Field in 1997. Four years later, it was Luis Gonzalez in Game 7 of the World Series. Looking back, those were merely speedbumps on the road to Cooperstown.
This is different, but it's not about the Yankees, his teammates or the fans. This is the biggest closing opportunity of Rivera's career, and he deserves the chance to finish it on the mound, with the baseball in his hand.