If this is the end for Mariano Rivera, it finished not with a whimper but the thud of a baseball against a wall. That was always one potential finish, but this was like the residents of Pisa waking up to find the damn thing toppled over and finally having to answer the question of “What now?” Rivera stood for so long and broke so many rules that the talk today will likely be of what a tragedy it is for the whole exercise to end this way. I don’t celebrate it, but in the end River’s body did what no single hitter could ever do convincingly, and that’s show that the guy is human. This could have happened at any point since the strike. It happened in 2012.
Rivera’s career isn’t just staggering. He’s sui generis, a now-fallen baseball god with no father to his breathtaking style. Cal Ripken was eventually the Guy in Gehrig’s Shadow, and the bulky guy who didn’t meet a batting stance he didn’t like. Rivera was the converse. Almost ashen in his wiryness, his control panel had one button and he pressed it with joy. Yankees fans loved him for it, and why not? They won and won and won and won, and they won with happy endings the likes of which all sports fans may not crave, but love, because it puts them at the center of the narrative. Rivera was Disney-like, and if there’s anything good about the way it likely ended it’s that we can appreciate the man instead of the myth.
But oh, what a myth! Even in his most visible moment of “failure,” against the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001, it was in play. He only gave up broken-bat singles, and when called upon to throw to second base, he pressed the only button he had, and chucked it into center field. In a moment so potentially fraught with symbolism just after September 11, mighty Mariano fell short, and the winners weren’t New York’s brokenhearted but a bunch of Curt-come-latelies from Arizona. The gift here was the same as the injury, in a way: It showed that life doesn’t give a shit about your narratives, and the lesson is to enjoy the good times when they happen.
I’m trying to make chicken salad here, which might sound rich coming from a Red Sox fan, but I loved Rivera. He belonged to the Yankees, but he belonged to the baseball-playing human race, and that’s all I really care about. Shit, it’s better than he played for the Yankees. If anyone was deserving of the spotlight, it was him. Derek Jeter is a great, great player, but he’s symbolic of the Yankees teams in a way Mariano isn’t. Those Yankees teams were Derek Jeter and had Mariano, and that’s an important semantic difference. Mariano belonged to all of us, because things that damn awesome just do.
All that said, there’s no official word that this is the end for Mariano, but it is the end for the Yankees, who finally have to face life without him on a sustained basis. This is the moment everything changes. As fans of literally every other team can tell you, “relief pitching” is an oxymoron, in that it’s almost always a relief for the other team to see it activated. Through all the scuffling, the Yankees knew Rivera was on the end of that chain, and for as long as they needed him. Even as his appearances longer than one inning dwindled, you knew he had it in him, just like he had three innings in him in 2003 against the Red Sox in the famous Aaron Boone game. It’s barely remembered that David Ortiz came about two feet from hitting a home run off the great one in extra innings, and for good reason: Rivera kept him in the yard, and when Boone did Ortiz about 60 feet better, he ran to the mound and pounded it with his bare fists, crying like a man who had given everything he had to a game he loved. If your lasting image of Mariano is of the legend writhing in the dirt, tears streaking his face, make it that one, and not the one from yesterday. That’s the legend in carbonite, the tower that can never be rebuilt.