David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991. Show More
Mariano Rivera made one pitch nearly unhittable for 18 years. The trick now, at age 43 and with a surgically repaired knee, is to squeeze another season from that signature cutter.
It won't be easy. Rivera must know that as he prepares to announce his retirement plans Saturday at Steinbrenner Field. After almost a year removed from doing what he does best, the greatest closer in baseball history has to be feeling human.
Nobody ever looked at him that way. To opposing hitters, Rivera was a pitching cyborg, a terminator summoned from the bullpen to extinguish all hope.
"You basically know what's coming," David Wright said, "and you still can't hit it."
As much as players praised Rivera during Thursday's Team USA workout, those holding bats in their hands expressed some relief, too.
Rivera's placid demeanor on the mound hides a scorching competitive fire burning within. It's something Wright has experienced plenty during their Subway Series matchups, and he talked about how he would tell his grandkids one day about his walk-off single against Rivera.
That was way back in 2006, and Wright's eyes lit up in recalling the moment, describing it as a "distinct honor." Said Wright, "Over Johnny Damon's head in centerfield. That's obviously one of the highlights for me."
Rivera had the opportunity last month to reveal his intentions when he first arrived in Tampa. Instead, he deferred to a later date. Did something happen between then and now to change his mind?
Maybe it would have been cleaner for him to walk away last year, but blowing out his knee that night at Kauffman Stadium begged for a more fitting curtain call. Needing to go out on his own terms, Rivera re-upped for another $10 million and a chance to do the farewell tour.
The only fear now is that Rivera might be something less than what everyone remembers. Those who know him best say that won't happen.
"I have no doubt," former Yankees manager Joe Torre said, "because I think announcing his retirement has probably taken that decision-making out of the mix. I think last year he was probably a little torn -- he didn't know what he wanted to do. He didn't let on, but he was going to take it a day at a time.
"The fact that he's had a second chance, I think he's in a good place doing this."
By finally drawing that finish line, Rivera can put to rest the questions, and maybe even enjoy a victory lap. But it might be a very different season for these Yankees, defined more by struggles than success, and his chances in the spotlight could turn out to be fewer as a result.
Regardless of how this year unfolds, there's nothing that can tarnish what should be a first-ballot Hall of Fame career for Rivera. As Torre said Thursday, there will be a second No. 42 retired at Yankee Stadium, alongside that of Jackie Robinson -- a fitting spot for two universally respected men.
"I think there's certain players that when you see them -- no matter what you've done or how many years you've been in the game -- there's a certain awe about them," Wright said, "and I think Mariano has that. No matter if you're a Yankee, a Met, a Red Sock, whatever. You just have the utmost respect for guys like that. Obviously, he's going to be missed."
Rivera's not gone yet. But as he plots his exit strategy, it's another sign that the Yankees as we've always known them are evaporating before our eyes.
Nothing good lasts forever, even if Rivera made it last longer than what was believed to be humanly possible.
"He's kind of the mold everybody works off of," Braves closer Craig Kimbrel said. "You want to be as good as he is."
No shot, kid.
There will never be a closer quite like Mariano Rivera. And if he winds up making this year as great as all the others, as improbable as that sounds, it really shouldn't surprise us.