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On the mound, he is a study in simplicity. He does not pitch from a windup. He has a small and effortless rotation, always from the stretch position. His cutter is a freak of nature, the most devastating pitch in the game. It looks like a fastball but then—whoooosh—it suddenly and powerfully cuts in on left-handed hitters (which jams them) and tails away from right-handed hitters (which forces them to weakly flail at his pitches). It moves like a sped-up slider and has the spin of a fastball, and even when a hitter knows it’s coming, he finds that it is impossible to hit.
Perhaps most importantly, Rivera is unemotional about it all. When a hitter actually does clock one, he remains stoic.
“You can’t let them get to you,” Rivera once said. “You have to be the same, no matter what.”
Even with his remarkable consistency, his obituary has been written before. Ten years ago, New York Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica told his readers that Rivera was “starting to move into the late innings.” Eight years ago, Lupica warned that Rivera was battling “against time now.”
And Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson—a heroic Yankee who knows first-hand what it means to sluggishly age out of the game—gave Rivera a little lecture through the press on how to handle the inexorable roll toward decline: “At first there’s that early stage in your career when you’re still young, you first make it in this game, then you level off for the first time and think to yourself, ‘Uh oh—they found me out,’” Jackson explained to Newsday at a time when Mo was going through a bad stretch. “Then you have your middle years when you’re a full adult and you attain your full greatness…. Then all of a sudden you get to 35, 36, and you have a bad slump like Mo is in, and you’re back to saying to yourself, ‘Uh-oh…I know the end is coming sooner or later. Is this it? Is this it?’”
No, it wasn’t. That Rivera slump was six years ago.
It’s no surprise that a man who spent his career breaking bats and mowing down the game’s best could handle a hack sportswriter and a Hall of Fame slugger. Rivera beat all their lousy odds.
He is finally in the twilight, but not because he has broken down. Steroids weren’t responsible for propping him up over the last decade, either, as they were for half the league. Rivera, the greatest closer and most dominant major leaguer ever in the postseason, will retire at season’s end of his own accord.
“Why now? Now’s the time,” he said, sagely, earlier this year.
Mickey Mantle hung around too long—he didn’t record more than 60 RBIs in each of his last four seasons—and that is not Mo. In the last ten years, from age 33 to 43, Rivera has had an ERA that rose above 2.16 exactly once.
“There’s nothing left. I did everything, and I’m proud.”
What’s manhood? Just look at that impeccable locution. Mariano Rivera is a Hemingway hero. Those same words could easily have come from the mouth of the gritty and grizzled Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea—a man who knew about toughness (and spoke of the great DiMaggio).
The great Rivera is the Old Man and the C (the C stands for cutter, his go-to pitch). He ends his career untouched by scandal. He is the best at his job. He is modest. He has religion and purpose and kindness.
It has been said about others before, but he may be the last hero in baseball. McGwire and Sosa and Clemens and Bonds could not pull it off, but Rivera most certainly will. Also: He has great teeth.
He missed most of last season, but not because he blew out his prize right arm, which has not betrayed him. He stumbled badly on a warning track in Kansas City while shagging flies—part of his pregame routine— and blew out his knee. It was bad luck and it seemed, for a moment, that it would mean the end of a career. And despite the pain, he didn’t scream or moan.
“Nothing came out,” said Rivera, talking about his mouth.
And those were not the right terms to leave the game he loves, either, he said. He would not leave hobbled. He would go out on top, still mowing down hitters, still in command of his perfect cutter.
“To me, there’s no sadness,” he said. “I would say joy, because thank God I was able to play the game of baseball for so many years.”