Mariano Rivera was a cut above, a lifesaver

Mariano Rivera of the Yankees pitches in the

Mariano Rivera of the Yankees pitches in the ninth inning against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium. (April 4, 2013) (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

The Yankees got a taste of what life would be like without Mariano Rivera a year ago. After a season-ending knee injury removed Mo from the bullpen, a mercenary named Rafael Soriano performed quite capably in the closer's role, and to the casual observer, it seemed like business as usual in the Bronx until the Tigers abruptly changed all that in October.

A closer is a relief pitcher, after all, one of seven or eight specialty jobs contained in a 25-man roster. And a bullpen's members usually are the most interchangeable parts of that roster: the least expensive, often rotated like tires from season to season. When one builds up too much mileage, or no longer can provide stability, it is replaced.

Which is all the more reason to treasure what Rivera has done in transforming the workmanlike existence of a closer into a masterpiece of performance art.

Sound easy? If you've watched Rivera the last 19 years, it only looks that way. His delivery appears effortless -- no wasted energy, no wildly gyrating parts. A smooth, friction-free release that has produced one of the most lethal pitches the game has ever witnessed: a cut fastball, or cutter, that over the last two decades has split more wood than a pack of overcaffeinated lumberjacks.

It feels weird to say, but no pitcher will do this job the same way again. Not for the Yankees, and -- fortunately for them -- nobody else, either. Joe Girardi, who spent a lifetime behind the plate before moving to the bench, knows that to be true. The closer's role will continue to be there, despite the stat crowd's efforts to retire it.

But in a matter of days, Rivera will exit the stage, just as Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Ford and Mattingly did before him. The truly sad part about saying goodbye, however, is that you never completely appreciate what you had until it's gone. After the gift-giving and the ceremonies and the heartfelt speeches are over, all that's left is the void, one we won't fully grasp until the Yankees' very first save situation of 2014.

"I think it will be more of a reality when he's not there next year,'' Girardi said. "I think that's when it really sinks in because after every year's over, everyone goes home and you don't really see them much. But when you show up next year, and you don't see a guy in uniform, it's strange.''

But Rivera is not just another guy in pinstripes, and his Yankees legacy was nearly derailed before it could even get underway. Groomed as the understudy to John Wetteland for the 1996 World Series champs, Rivera took over as the Yankees' full-time closer the following season -- and almost pitched his way out of the Bronx during the '97 Division Series loss to the Indians.

After Rivera blew the Game 4 save by allowing the tying home run to Sandy Alomar Jr., George Steinbrenner considered trading him to the Mariners in a package for Randy Johnson. As I wrote back then, the Yankees were concerned about Rivera's durability -- he had 42 saves in 52 chances, but struggled with tendinitis toward the end of the season and took the playoff loss hard.

When told that November he was mentioned in trade discussions with Seattle, Rivera reacted like any young Yankee would. "It doesn't surprise me, but it bothers me a lot,'' he said at the time from his home in La Chorrea, Panama. "I can't do anything about it. I thought I was always going to be a Yankee.''

As it turned out, Rivera -- like his fastball -- was spot on. All these years later, he never came close to pitching for anyone but the Yankees, a team he helped win five World Series rings as the franchise established another dynastic era. Along the way, Rivera became the all-time saves leader, a 13-time All-Star, a World Series MVP and an ALCS MVP. He also is the rare player universally praised by both his teammates and biggest rivals.

"I think he's the greatest professional athlete at his position in my lifetime,'' Curt Schilling told the Boston Globe. Brady and Montana at QB, Rose as a hitter, LeBron as a basketball player, Crosby or Gretzky in hockey. I think Mo was better than anyone at his job.''

Schilling's 2004 Red Sox did the unthinkable in beating Rivera en route to ending the club's 86-year title drought. And few moments of that historic October are celebrated more in Boston than rallying against the superhuman Rivera in Game 4 of the ALCS. The Red Sox brought it up again Sunday night with their part-roast, part-toast of Rivera at Fenway Park, and he shrugged off the needling to thank them for what he felt was a special send-off.

"It was humbling,'' Rivera said.

The Yankees' tribute for Mo certainly will dwarf Boston's retirement party and all of the others this season from various stadiums around the country. But when it is over, something special will be over, too. No more "Enter Sandman,'' no more of the graceful dominance, no more of winning and losing with equal dignity and class.

No more Mariano Rivera.

The ninth inning will never be the same.

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