David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Anyone really believe Mariano Rivera was going to walk away from the biggest closing opportunity of his lifetime? As surely as Rivera turns bats to sawdust, he was not going to allow the credits to roll on his career over the lasting image of him writhing in pain on Kauffman Stadium's warning track.
No surprise, either.
"I'm coming back," Rivera said the day after his right knee buckled while he chased a fly ball during batting practice. "Write it down in big letters. I'm not going out like this."
Rivera seemed defiant, as if the very thought of conceding his career to ACL surgery was ridiculous. But it's not an easy road back to the bullpen. The expectation is that Rivera will need up to five months of rehab, which makes a return this season pretty much out of the question.
Rivera can live with that. The idea of taking his 608 saves, going home to Panama and then waiting for the call from Cooperstown is not something he could stomach. Not yet. Even at age 42, when most pitchers who don't throw a knuckleball are working on their short game or sitting in a broadcast booth.
Good for Rivera. A script as special as his needs a happy ending, and Thursday's shocking collapse while shagging fly balls is not what Rivera had in mind when this year began. Before he truly calls it quits, presumably after next season, he 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.
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 as a starter before being reborn as an unhittable relief pitcher, and ultimately 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. Rivera said Dr. David Altchek, who repaired his shoulder in 2008, called him a "quick healer," but his age could be more of a factor this time around.
The same athleticism that allowed him to shag fly balls so effortlessly for nearly two decades could help him speed through the rehabilitation.
After Thursday's warning-track calamity, despite the freakish circumstances, Rivera said he has no regrets. And now that he's set his sights on a 2013 return, he is not worried about the uncertainty ahead of him.
"Miracles happen," Rivera said. "I'm OK. I'm a positive man, and I'm OK. The only thing is I feel sorry that I let down my teammates. But besides that, I'm OK. Everything will be OK, too."
Looking back, those were merely speed bumps on the road to Cooperstown. This is a more daunting challenge, but one that Rivera gladly embraced after thinking it over in his Kansas City hotel room late Thursday night.
His decision was swift and warmly received by everyone in baseball circles -- at least publicly. Surely anyone who uses a bat to earn a living and doesn't wear pinstripes couldn't be completely thrilled by the news.
But Rivera's comeback is for all the right reasons. It's not about extending a Hall of Fame career. This is about closing it the way Rivera always has, on the mound, with the baseball in his hand. Bravo to Rivera for giving himself that chance.