Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 6, 2012

# 608

In the moment of course, last Monday night, the thought never occurred to me. As the bullpen door in center field swung open and the first electric chords of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” echoed through the Stadium, had someone nearby suggested that what we were about to witness we might be seeing for the final time, I would have thought them daft. Innocent to the possibility of fate’s evil intervention, we in the stands rose as one as we had countless times before, saluting the slender figure who stepped onto the warning track and paused for a moment as always, before beginning the long jog across the emerald expanse of outfield grass.

At the Stadium, as at every major league ballpark these days, almost every aspect of the game is reduced to a sponsorship opportunity. So it is that a pitching change is usually heralded by the public address announcer as “time for an AT&T call to the bullpen,” even as a cell phone ad is displayed on the giant screen high above center field. But such tacky commercialism would be out of place with the entrance of the greatest closer in the history of the game. Instead there was just the driving beat of Metallica and the announcer’s slow, solemn intonation of our hero’s name: Mariano Rivera.

The game between the Yankees and the Orioles had been a taut affair. Hiroki Kuroda threw seven strong innings for New York, allowing just four hits. After a walk and a single to lead off the 2nd, Baltimore scored first on a sacrifice fly. But the Yankees struck back in the bottom of the frame, as Mark Teixeira singled and Eric Chavez homered into the New York bullpen. As the innings rolled by the score remained 2-1. In the 7th Kuroda stopped the potential tieing run from scoring when after a pitch in the dirt got away from Russell Martin he raced in to cover the plate, taking the throw from Martin in time to tag out Nick Markakis, who was trying to score from third. Setup man David Robertson struck out the side in the top of the 8th; and after the Yankees went in order in the bottom half of the inning, the stage was set for Mo.

Left fielder Nolan Reimold stepped into the batter’s box. The first pitch from Rivera was a 92 mile per hour cut fastball. Reimold swung over the ball for strike one. The cutter is part of the repertoire of many major league pitchers; but for Rivera it is the repertoire. He discovered the pitch while working in the bullpen during the 1997 season, his third year in the majors and his first as the Yankees closer. No one in the majors relies on the cutter more, and no one has ever thrown it more effectively over a longer period of time. Despite the fact that every batter who steps in to face him knows what is coming, more often than not they are helpless against the pitch and its late lateral movement, away from right-handed hitters and in on the hands of lefties.

Rivera’s second pitch was the mirror image of his first. This time Reimold connected, but his bat splintered into pieces as he did so, and a weak ground ball rolled out to second baseman Robinson Cano, who tossed to Teixeira at first for the out. The Braves Chipper Jones described Mo’s cutter as a “buzzsaw” after watching a teammate break three bats in a single plate appearance in the 1999 World Series. I couldn’t begin to count how many bats I have seen Mo break while sitting in my seat at the Stadium over the years, but I will always remember one in particular. In a game last season one of his cutters broke the opponent’s bat cleanly at the handle, and both a bouncing ground ball and the barrel of the bat headed directly back to the mound. In an astonishing display of athleticism and eye-hand coordination, he jumped in the air so that the piece of bat could whirl harmlessly beneath his feet even as he reached down and snared the ball with his glove hand. Just another broken bat groundout for Mo.

With one out shortstop J.J. Hardy stepped in. His at bat lasted four pitches, cutters thrown at 93, 92, 92 and 91 miles per hour. The first two were out of the strike zone. Hardy got a piece of the third, fouling it back. On the fourth pitch Hardy sent a soft line drive into short center field for a base hit. It was just the sixth hit of the season off Rivera. Half of those, along with his only two walks, came on the season’s first day in Tampa, when he blew his first save opportunity of the year. Between that unexpectedly bad outing and this one, Rivera had pitched seven innings, recording four saves and coming in three times in non-save situations. The two hits allowed over those appearances gave the 42-year old a WHIP of 0.286 and an ERA of 0.00 over that stretch.

For all of his success, Rivera has of course known failure. Since he plays for the Yankees, that failure has sometimes come on the Great Game’s biggest stage. In his first year as the team’s closer, he blew a save against Cleveland in Game 4 of the ALDS. The Yankees eventually lost that game and then lost Game 5, ending their post-season. Four years later he made a costly throwing error that contributed to a blown save in Game 7 of the World Series against Arizona. Whether in high-profile post-season moments, or on the first day of a new season this year, Mo has always accepted the occasional failure as an inevitable part of the game; displaying the same humility and grace that he has shown in victory. As his subsequent numbers for this season reminded the team’s fans, he has also always come back from any failure to record even more success.

With a pinch runner on at first, right fielder Markakis, the potential go-ahead run, came to the plate. He looked at a 90 mile per hour cutter for a called strike. On the next pitch Rivera demonstrated his versatility by throwing a four-seam fastball. Markakis looked at that as well, and the umpire called ball one. Then on the ninth pitch of his night Mo went back to the pitch that has preserved championships for the Yankees, but this time he varied the speed. The cutter came in at 85 miles per hour, breaking in on the left-handed hitting Markakis. He swung and sent a bouncing ball directly at Derek Jeter. In the stands we sensed what was about to happen even as the play began to unfold. So it was that we were already coming to our feet amid a building roar even as Jeter caught the grounder and flipped the ball to Cano, who had raced over to cover second. With a single fluid motion Cano stepped on the bag and pivoted toward first. He fired a strike down the base path to Teixeira to complete the double play and end the game.

Between the mound and home plate Rivera and catcher Martin met for a congratulatory handshake even as their teammates began to line up behind them for the traditional victory celebration. It was the 608th regular season save for the man with the most in history, to go along with a record 42 more in the post-season. His 2.21 career ERA is the lowest for any pitcher with at least 1,000 innings since 1920. His 0.70 post-season ERA is hard to even comprehend. Yet last Monday night was just another day at the office, his calm reaction on the field seemed to say. For those of us in the stands, it was another virtuoso performance by a living legend.

Less than 72 hours later of course, Mo would tear his ACL and damage his meniscus while shagging fly balls during batting practice in Kansas City, ending his season. On Friday he announced that the injury would not end his career. “I’m coming back,” Rivera told reporters in Kansas City; adding “I’m not going out like this.” For Mo, for the Yankees, and for their fans, it was an important statement to make. It of course gives him something to work toward. It lifts a cloud of depression from the team and allows the other players to move ahead. When Rivera made the announcement there was still almost 85% of the season to play; and as Jeter correctly noted, “You feel sorry for Mo. But no one’s going to feel sorry for the Yankees.” It gives the fans hope that a brilliant career will not end in pain on that warning track in Kansas City; but that come next spring we will again be on our feet cheering that slender figure, the last player who will ever wear number 42, as he pauses on the warning track at the Stadium, about to add another chapter to the legend.

We can hope, but we cannot know. Mo will be 43 when the 2013 season begins, and no one can say what age, months of rehab, and time away from the mound and competition will do. The Yankees stand for many things, not all of them good; but everything good that this most successful franchise in sports stands for is embodied by Mariano Rivera. Like every Yankees fan, I will spend the rest of 2012 looking forward to seeing him next year. But because one never knows how or when fate will choose to intervene, I will also always consider myself lucky to have been there in my usual seat, high above first base, on the night Mo did his job for the 608th time.

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