BY RYAN BYRNES
For New York sports fans who like to think that something historic could happen on any given night, Monday evening presented an ideal opportunity.
At Madison Square Garden, the Rangers were hosting the Washington Capitals, exchanging goals in a compelling Game 2 as the Blue Shirts sought a crucial 2-0 series lead. In South Beach, the Knicks trailed the Miami Heat, but were one dominant Carmelo Anthony fourth quarter performance away from returning home with the series tied. Down in Houston, R.A. Dickey had quietly no-hit the Astros through five innings, a premature but still notable storyline for a franchise that has never successfully achieved the elusive accomplishment. And up in the Bronx, Hiroki Kuroda had navigated the Yankees to a narrow 2-1 lead through seven innings against the Baltimore Orioles.
As I struggled to keep up with all four games, thinking about the friends and family watching and attending the various events, there was a fleeting moment where I thought that something historic would indeed happen that night. With just enough blind optimism, you could see everything falling into place, everything working out as perfectly as possible. Instead, the wheels fell off fast. Alexander Ovechkin found the top of the net, as the Caps skated off the Garden ice as victors. Amar’e Stoudemire found a fire extinguisher, as the Knicks left Miami not only as losers but as fools. The Astros found Dickey’s knuckleball, as the Mets went back to their hotel without a no-hitter or a win. The silver lining, if there was one, was that the Yankees held on for a victory over Baltimore, with Mariano Rivera inducing a sharp, game-ending double-play. The Bronx Bombers had won, but alas, I retired for the night believing that nothing historic had happened.
I was wrong. Perhaps the most special New York sports moment that could have unfolded Monday night did in fact unfold: Mariano Rivera very likely recorded the last save of his epic, mythic, position-defining career. It was nearly impossible to contemplate at the time – Rivera had hinted at a possible retirement after 2012’s conclusion, but his health and dominance had accompanied him into the season just as it had every year since he became the Yankee closer in 1997. The end, as unfortunate as it would be, was still at least six months away, and it would seemingly be on Rivera’s own terms.
But in a New York minute, everything can change. Rivera sat idly in the bullpen as the Yankees dropped the next two games to the Orioles, bringing us to Thursday night’s game in Kansas City. Rivera, as he has done since his days in the minors, navigated the outfield during Yankee batting practice, shagging fly balls and carousing with his teammates. He was then a bit overzealous attempting to snag a fly ball off the bat of newcomer Jayson Nix, twisted his leg, hit the ground and was left writhing in pain. His teammates and coaches surrounded him, placed him on a cart, and the Twitter universe and baseball world was suddenly obsessed with what exactly transpired during the moments leading up to a meaningless May game between the Yanks and Royals.
Thursday’s actual game was basically a distraction for fans who were blindly optimistic enough to believe they weren’t in for the worst case scenario, but with every inning that went by without an optimistic update from the YES crew, the unthinkable seemed more and more like the inevitable. Sure enough, shortly after a sad-in-itself 4-3 Yankee loss, Joe Girardi told the media that Rivera had suffered a torn ACL, ending the 42-year-old’s season and quite possibly his career. The sports world reacted just as a real world tragedy would paralyze society. The locker room became a funeral parlor. Fans and media of all cities offered their praises for Rivera and their condolences with how it all went down. Privately, members of Yankee Nation struggled to contemplate how it all went so wrong and how it all happened so fast.
But sometimes that is just how fate works out. In many ways, Rivera – or at least his legendary success – was the product of fate, of random good chance. He was a fringe prospect out of Panama whose career appeared over before it even started following elbow surgery in 1992. He then, almost accidentally, developed the ability to throw a cut fastball, providing him a path to the majors that will be talked about for generations. The pitch would not just provide the centerpiece for perhaps the greatest sports dynasty of the modern era, but it would redefine the closer position and revolutionize the world of pitching. Fate had handed him a ticket for success, one that he combined with a second-to-none work ethic and converted into nearly two decades of dominance that was incomparable and likely unrepeatable.
Last night, fate might have taken it all away. Revisionists and naysayers will surface and suddenly condemn Rivera for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and condemn the coaches and organization that allowed him to be there. But the criticism will be unfounded. Though we always prefer to assess blame when something goes wrong, sometimes there is just nowhere we can justly place it. For the better part of 17 seasons, things went Rivera’s way. Think of all of the variables – every rotation of the baseball, every potential bloop or blast, every potential tweak or twist, every fly ball he tracked down – that could have gone wrong, that could have ended or stunted an epic legacy that had no business even existing. Yet an overwhelming majority of the time, the pitch cut Rivera’s way, the ball bounced the team’s way and the Yankee Universe spun on an axis of success with more stability than sustainability ever should have allowed.
For New York sports fans who like to think that something historic could happen on any given night, the last appearance of Rivera’s Hall of Fame career was certainly expected to be one of them. Our last image of Mariano was sure to be the closer pumping his fist on the Yankee Stadium mound before being mobbed by his teammates in a moment of victory and elation. Instead, our last image could turn out to be Mariano clutching his knee on the Kauffman Stadium warning track before being mobbed by his teammates in a moment of defeat and depression. It just doesn’t seem right. We knew the expiration date on our euphoria was approaching, but our rational side told us that we would at least receive notice of when it was going to be, even if our irrational side wanted to pretend that the ride would go on forever.
In baseball, as in life, that’s not usually how it works. The ride ends. Legacies conclude. Shit happens. Success and happiness are not as easy to come by as Rivera routinely made it seem. You can be sad. You can be shocked. You can sit around, struggling to fathom what life might be like without that someone or something that has brought you so much joy for so long. But in baseball, and in life, be sure to truly appreciate and be grateful for the fact that you ever had that joy in the first place.
So as I think back on the career of Rivera, the common link between the first Yankee team I remember and the one I currently cheer, the most valuable source of countless moments of celebration, and of how truly absurd it is that a skill accidentally acquired by a kid out of Panama brought generations of grown men and women some of the best moments of their sports-obsessed lives, I have just one overwhelming thought:
Thank you, Mariano.