Mariano Rivera’s career may have ended Thursday night, not while basking in the glow of adoring fans at Yankee Stadium, but in agonizing pain on the outfield grass before a few thousand fans in Kansas City.
Baseball’s greatest closer tore a ligament in his right knee while shagging balls during batting practice before a 4-3 loss to the Royals, a devastating injury that likely will sideline the Yankees’ 12-time All-Star for the remainder of the season.
"This is bad," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "There’s no question about it."
The 42-year-old right-hander’s leg caught on the field where the grass meets dirt, causing his knee to buckle. He fell into the outfield wall and down to the ground, where Rivera grimaced in pain as teammates and training staff ran out to see him.
Rivera was carted from the field and taken for an MRI exam. Royals physician Dr. Vincent Key diagnosed a torn ACL after examining the scans of the knee.
"I thought it wasn’t that bad, but it’s torn," Rivera said, pausing several times in the Yankees clubhouse to compose himself. "Have to fix it."
Rivera has said that he will decide after the season whether to retire, and while Girardi said he hoped that baseball’s career saves leader with 608 would make a comeback, Rivera was noncommittal.
"At this point, I don’t know," he said. "At this point, I don’t know. Going to have to face this first. It all depends on how the rehab is going to happen, and from there, we’ll see."
After the loss, the only thing on Alex Rodriguez’s mind was Rivera.
"I saw it all go down," said Rodriguez, who uttered "Oh, my God," from behind the batting cage when Rivera went down. "Obviously it’s a huge blow. Mo means so much to this team.
"It’s hard to even talk about it tonight. Mo means so much to us on a personal level, and on the field."
Bullpen coach Mike Harkey was near Rivera when he went down, and was the first to whistle for help. Girardi was watching batting practice near Rodriguez behind home plate and ran down the third base line before cutting across the outfield to get to his closer.
Harkey and Girardi helped carry Rivera to the cart, gently setting him into the back with his knee propped up. The cart rounded the warning track before disappearing up a tunnel.
The initial diagnosis was a twisted knee, but Girardi had a feeling the injury was much worse when he didn’t receive word as the game pressed on.
"My thought was he must have torn the ligament, the way he went down," Girardi said.
Girardi was quick to defend Rivera’s decision to shag balls in the outfield, pointing out that he may never have become a five-time World Series champion without putting in such work. He called it a fluke injury, not unlike somebody falling off the curb or down the stairs.
"You’ve all seen Mo run around here for what, 40 years?" Girardi said.
Derek Jeter said that Rivera has shagged balls for the "20-something" years that he’s known him, and never once did the notion that he could be hurt cross his mind.
"It’s bad. There’s no other way to put it," Jeter said. "It’s just a freak thing."
Rookie starter David Phelps (0-1) said he thought for a moment that Rivera was just joking, but once training staff gathered around the closer, he knew something bad had happened.
"There’s nothing I can do but stand there and watch. It’s a miserable feeling to see it," Phelps said. "I didn’t think it was that bad. I was just hoping he caught it funny or sprained it or something, and then we came in here after the game and found out the news."
The outcome of the game was almost secondary for the Yankees, though that was hardly the case for Kansas City, which snapped a 10-game home losing streak. Even in the Royals’ clubhouse, though, Rivera was on everyone’s mind.
"That’s horrible news," closer Jonathan Broxton said. "As many saves as he’s been out there and as good an athlete as he is, I just hate for bad news. All I can do is wish him the best."