On May 17, 1996, Bill Clinton was in the midst of his reelection campaign against Bob Dole. The Atlanta Olympic Games were two months away. Bryce Harper was 3 years old.
At Yankee Stadium that night, Mariano Rivera recorded his first save for the New York Yankees in an 8-5 victory over the California Angels.
Six men who played in that game — including current Yankees manager Joe Girardi — have gone on to manage or coach in the major leagues. Rivera’s job description remained the same for nearly 16 years.
That was, until Thursday.
Rivera, 42, tore the anterior curciate ligament in his right knee as he chased down a flyball in batting practice. He will almost certainly miss the remainder of the season, although he told reporters Friday in Kansas City that he intends to come back in 2013.
The sport had been in mourning, or something close to it, partially because we were so unprepared for the news. Rivera had hinted — strongly — during spring training that this would be his final season. But he had been pitching so well (.960 WHIP, 5-for-6 in save opportunities) that the possibility of retirement had become a quiet subplot.
Now, suddenly, The End is staring him down from 60 feet, 6 inches away — even if Rivera is resolved to attack it next year with cutters blazing.
“I’m coming back,” he told reporters, according to the Yankees’ official Twitter account. “Write it down in big letters. I’m not going out like this.”
At the very least, it’s probable we have seen the last of Rivera on a mound in 2012. No more No. 42. No more "Enter Sandman." No more Louisville Sluggers turned to kindling by his signature pitch. For now, that is. The ripple effect will resemble a typhoon — for the Yankees, for opposing teams, for the millions of fans worldwide who admire one of the classiest men to put on a major league uniform.
Most obviously, the Yankees are not as good as they were before Rivera drifted back to follow a flyball off the bat of Jayson Nix. (Nix had been called up from Class AAA less than 24 hours before that round of batting practice. Thursday was his first game in the majors all year.)
Rivera didn’t make the Yankees invincible. It only seemed that way. And as of this moment, they are easier to beat.
For years, opposing managers deviated from normal strategies because they felt they had to get a lead before the ninth inning. (When Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland called Rivera the most valuable player in baseball since the mid-1990s, this is what he meant.) If teams saw Rivera, they figured they were going to lose. Usually, they were right. Now, the urgency is gone.
The most successful bullpens have defined roles in the late innings, and the Yankees have had stability ahead of Rivera for much of his tenure with the team. Now Girardi must find a new equilibrium if the New York bullpen is to remain among the best in baseball. Even if David Robertson can handle Rivera’s old job, can Rafael Soriano handle Robertson’s old job? And if Soriano can handle Robertson’s old job, can Cory Wade handle Soriano’s old job?
Rivera hadn’t been on the disabled list since 2003, when he missed the season’s first month because of a strained right groin. With few exceptions, he exerted a shadowy influence on every Yankees game for the past decade and a half. He made his teammates more comfortable. He made his opponents less comfortable. His absence will have the inverse effect.
It would be foolish to suggest that Rivera’s farewell (at least for now) will bring about the end of the Yankees as we know them. They remain a championship contender, even after a mediocre 13-12 start. As if to underscore that point, Rivera’s close friend Derek Jeter leads the American League with a .404 batting average. In contrast to last May, no one is saying Jeter is finished.
Yet, the loss of Rivera is a loss of aura. His injury — along with the absences of Tampa Bay’s Evan Longoria and Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury — could embolden upstarts like the Orioles (16-9) and Blue Jays (15-11).
Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos said in November he would be more comfortable making major moves once he’s had a chance to assess his team and its postseason chances. “In season, when you know who’s healthy, when you know who’s having a good year, when you know what the competition is doing, that’s when you potentially look to go big,” Anthopoulos said then. “You have a much better understanding of the current landscape.”
To state the obvious: Rivera’s torn ACL represents a seismic shift in that landscape.
Sometimes, we overrate the impact of one player. The St. Louis Cardinals were supposed to struggle without Albert Pujols. They are in first place. The Rays, even without Longoria for the past several days, entered the weekend with the best record in the American League.
But it’s a matter of historical record that Rivera is the best closer in baseball history. He is the all-time saves leader with 608. He has another 42 in the postseason, twice as many as the No. 2 pitcher on that list.
There will never be another Mariano Rivera. That’s why it was so hard to think, Thursday night and Friday morning, that we might not see original anymore. But now Rivera says he will come back. Is anyone prepared to doubt him?