Doesn’t matter if you love the Yankees or hate them. If you’re a baseball fan, this hurts.
Mariano Rivera is not simply the greatest closer in history or most valuable member of five World Series championship teams.
He is the embodiment of class, the picture of elegance, a gallant, majestic figure who stands almost above his sport.
Everyone in the game respects him — everyone.
And no one, not even the Yankees’ most bitter rivals, wants Rivera’s career to end with a freak knee injury, a torn right ACL that he suffered while shagging fly balls during batting practice on an innocent Thursday night in Kansas City.
The injury almost certainly will sideline Rivera for the remainder of the season, a season that he had said might be his last. Surely he will not want his 18-year career to end this way, but Rivera, 42, is a man of immense faith. He may consider the injury a sign from above, accept his destiny and move on with his life.
“At this point, I don’t know,” a visibly distraught Rivera told reporters Thursday night. “You have to face this first.”
Meaning, of course, his injury.
Some fans might wonder why Rivera would chase down meaningless fly balls before games, but if you’ve followed him over the years, you know better. This was not Amar’e Stoudamire punching the glass covering a fire extinguisher in anger. Shagging was part of Rivera’s routine, something he did for enjoyment and exercise virtually his entire career.
Crazy things happen. Crazy injuries happen. It’s just that they hardly ever happened to Rivera, who has been on the disabled list only five times, three times in 2002, none since April ’03.
He has been the Yankees’ biggest weapon, their greatest advantage — greater, even, than Derek Jeter. Opponents had to scramble, knowing they needed to grab the lead before the ninth inning, and sometimes the eighth, to keep Rivera from entering the game. Rivera had that ungodly cutter, that unshakable poise, that incredible mystique.
Rival clubs kept waiting for him to decline, anticipating that the decline of the Yankees would follow. Well, Rivera’s version of decline was ERAs of 1.40, 1.76, 1.80 and 1.91 the past four seasons. He opened this season with a blown save, then rebounded with eight scoreless innings, allowing a grand total of three batters to reach base.
But now, someone else will close for the Yankees.
The effect on the team cannot simply be measured by Rivera’s statistics, his record 608 saves and 2.21 ERA in the regular season, his 42 saves and 0.70 ERA in the postseason. Rivera has been the Yankees’ Mufasa, providing counsel, instilling calm. His teammates, after learning the details of his injury on Thursday night, were in shock.
Yet, strictly from a baseball perspective, the Yankees are as protected as they can possibly be, considering that they’re losing a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Right-hander David Robertson, who emerged last season as Rivera’s logical successor, has been even more dominant this season, pitching 11 scoreless innings, striking out 18, walking three.
Righty Rafael Soriano, a former closer himself, is more than qualified to serve as Robertson’s setup man. And if the Yankees need additional relievers, such pitchers are always in plentiful supply.
Rivera, though, was the ultimate safety net, providing a psychological edge that no other team had. Some sabermetricians contend that any quality reliever can close, but let’s see how Robertson handles the ninth now that Rivera no longer is behind him. Let’s see how Soriano handles his own added responsibility.
The bullpen was the Yankees’ biggest strength, ranking second in the American League in ERA. Now that strength is compromised, at a time when both the team’s rotation and offense are struggling.
The rotation ranks next-to-last in the AL in ERA — Michael Pineda is out for the season, Freddy Garcia is in the bullpen, Phil Hughes also might be better off pitching in relief.
The offense, while fourth in the league in runs, has sputtered of late, scoring only six times in the past four games. Robinson Cano is batting .255, Mark Teixeira .227, Russell Martin .172.
The Yankees will need their offense to be elite to compensate for their pitching, but frankly it’s difficult to get too worked up about the team’s postseason chances.
That concern pales next to the concern for Rivera.
The image was shown over and over on sports networks Thursday night — Rivera crumbling to the ground, screaming in pain, lying in agony.
Doesn’t matter if you love the Yankees or hate them. No one hates Mariano Rivera.