Mariano Rivera’s ACL injury puts career in jeopardy
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Mariano Rivera stood. Someone pushed a chair behind him. He ignored it. Already the day had stolen so much from him. Gone was Rivera’s right ACL, shredded by a misstep shagging fly balls during batting practice at Kauffman Stadium. His season was over, his farewell tour canceled, his career in peril. But he refused to sit. Nothing would take away a proud man’s ability to stand ramrod straight, even if it meant putting all of the weight on his left leg.
No amount of defiance could stifle the tears, the misplaced guilt oversaturating his ducts. “You just let the team down,” Rivera said, and away melted the robotic façade he built for the last 18 years as the greatest closer of all time for the New York Yankees. Because even if this was an accident, a stupid, crazy, freakish accident, the grim reality of it stared down Rivera, and he had trouble staring back.
Hell, everyone did. This was sad. Mariano Rivera’s career might have ended Thursday with him writhing on the warning track in Kansas City. He didn’t need a fairy-tale denouement, a pig pile atop him after the seventh game of the World Series. Just something dignified. Something fitting. Even the most jaded Red Sox fan would agree. They hate Rivera for how great he is and loathe the pinstripes on his uniform. Damn if they don’t respect him, his temperament, class and grace surely deserving a proper exit: on a mound somewhere, throwing his revolutionary cut fastball one final, mesmerizing time.
“At this point, I don’t know,” Rivera said, and he said it once more, the possibility of it not coming on his own terms still difficult to process. “I’m going to have to face this first.”
Around him, the Yankees’ clubhouse had emptied. His teammates wore the looks and spoke in the reverential tones of those at a funeral. Mo was there, flesh and blood, of course. This comforted nobody.
Trying to process this necessitated more than a few hours. Rivera is an oxymoron: the marvel taken for granted. For nearly two decades, he threw one pitch, that cutter, and recorded thousands of outs. In a game based on deception, the batter stepped in against Rivera knowing exactly what was coming, and it mattered not. Rivera kept sawing off bats and recording saves, 608 of them, more than anyone.
His dominance prompted peers to call him the best pitcher ever. This was nonsense. No one-inning pitcher, even with his 2.21 ERA and superb postseason performances and a fistful of World Series rings, could earn such a title. The most amazing pitcher ever? Now that’s a point worth arguing.
Rivera, son of a Panamanian fisherman, didn’t debut until well past his 25th birthday. He learned the cutter by accident and called it a gift from God. And no matter how many times he threw it, no matter how much movement or juice it lost, they still swung and missed. He was bionic, this 42-year-old who hadn’t succumbed to the disabled list since 2003.
So to see the entire scene, frantic and fraught, was to witness what those who know him figured unthinkable: Superman broke. Rivera shagged fly balls in batting practice every day. It was cathartic. He yearned to be an outfielder, and the two managers he has known, Joe Torre and Joe Girardi, let him play one in batting practice.
“I’ve seen that dude run down balls better in the outfield than we run down balls,” teammate Nick Swisher said.
Pitchers will play games shagging fly balls, assigning points for good catches, and it’s all fun and games until someone tears an ACL. It was so benign, too. Jayson Nix, a journeyman called up hours earlier, lifted a fly ball toward the track. Rivera retreated, leapt and crumbled.
“Oh my god,” Alex Rodriguez, standing next to the batting cage, said on video shown by the YES Network. “Oh my god.”
Girardi ran toward the outfield. Bullpen coach Mike Harkey whistled for help. Girardi and Harkey lifted Rivera onto a cart that whisked him away, his body and affect limp. Initial tests in the clubhouse gave Girardi hope no ligaments had blown. On the bench, Rivera’s teammates kept asking for updates. Finally, one arrived: torn ACL, torn meniscus, each to be verified by doctors in New York, both almost a certainty to be so.
“It’s bad,” Yankees captain Derek Jeter said. “It’s bad.”
That’s all he could say. That’s all anyone could say. Nobody wanted to fathom this was the end of Rivera’s season, and nobody wanted to believe this was the end of Rivera’s career, and nobody wanted to believe this happened in Kansas City, on a warning track, during BP.
“I don’t want it any other way,” Rivera said. “If it’s going to happen like that, at least happen doing what I love to do. And shagging I love to do. I mean, if I had to do it over again, I would do it again. No hesitation. There are reasons why it happens. You have to take it the way it is. Fight. Fight through it. Now we just have to fight.”
He tried. Lord, he tried. Rivera stood strong, on one leg, and tried to rationalize the irrational. It happened for a reason. It had to. Whatever his plan, it was being replaced by His plan. He would go to New York eventually, but Rivera wanted to stick around with his teammates, “make sure the guys are OK,” he said, because they weren’t.
In their minds’ eye – in everyone’s – the end of Rivera’s career looked like something. Whether it was a championship or a loss, a success or a failure, it wasn’t this. The idealized sports ending is replete with happiness. By now we should know better. Sports mimics life more than it does some saccharine script. It can be wicked and cruel. It spares not the innocent. It may yet give Rivera the ending he deserves. It may not.
For now, all he gets is a choice: to return or not. To spend a year rehabilitating with no guarantee of greatness or even mediocrity, or to return home and turn his philanthropy into a full-time vocation. He may not even get to decide. Maybe his knee will. Maybe his God will.
He took the first steps toward it around 11 p.m. He had run short on words and long on tears and needed no longer to intermingle the two. And so Mariano Rivera pushed off his left leg, landed gingerly on his right and kept that pattern going, left-right-limp, left-right-limp, left-right-limp, all the way across the clubhouse.
On this night at least, he would walk out on his own.