Imagine being the best in the world at something. Doesn't matter what it is. The best chef or painter or auto mechanic or blogger or cancer researcher or whatever.
That title, of course, would be under dispute. And if bequeathed such a label, there would be natural push back that somebody else is better, plus there is a likelihood that your ego would run amok and you'd start attending Vanity Fair Oscar parties in an outfit designed by Tom Ford or write a self-improvement guide-to-life book.
This is why we love Mariano Rivera. His title -- Greatest Closer of All Time (tm) -- is not under dispute. Nobody disputes this. OK, maybe a few isolated souls who attempt to state the case for Goose Gossage or maybe Hoyt Wilhelm, but that was a different game and a different time. Anyway, Rivera has been the best closer in baseball for going on 15 years now. Oh, sure, there have been contenders to the throne. Billy Wagner had dominating seasons and Trevor Hoffman was great for a long time and Eric Gagne was the best there for a year or two and Joe Nathan had a terrific stretch and now that kid in Atlanta, Craig Kimbrel, is putting up some insane strikeout numbers.
But Rivera kept on ticking, throwing that singular, magnificent pitch. Cutter, cutter, cutter. I think my mom knows he throws a cutter.
"He's the best I've ever been around," former Yankees manager Joe Torre once said. "Not only the ability to pitch and perform under pressure, but the calm he puts over the clubhouse. He's very important for us because he's a special person."
And that's the other reason we love Mariano Rivera. He's the best in the world at his craft, yet remains humble and without ego. You can dislike the New York Yankees, but you can't dislike Mariano Rivera.
And that's why Thursday's news is so jarring. Rivera suffered a freak torn ACL during batting practice, hurting his knee while shagging balls during batting practice. If Yankees team doctors confirm the MRI, Rivera is likely out for the season; watching the Yankees without Rivera coming on in the ninth to protect a lead is like going to the Louvre only to have the Mona Lisa undergoing restoration. There has been talk that this will be the final season for Rivera, which means there is the possibility Mariano Rivera has thrown his final pitch.
Manager Joe Girardi confirmed the injury after the Yankees' loss in Kansas City. "He was in pain. … If that’s the report, that’s about as bad as it gets," Girardi said.
Bryan Hoch, Yankees writer for MLB.com tweeted, “Mariano Rivera, head bowed and teary-eyed, says he does not know if he will pitch again.”
Which means we have to go down this route. What if he is done, at least for this season?
Now ... as great as Rivera is, even the best in the world, the actual impact of losing him for a lengthy period of time would be pretty minimal. First, in David Robertson they have one of the most dominant relievers in baseball, a guy with a 0.93 ERA over the past two seasons and 118 strikeouts in 77.2 innings. Rafael Soriano, Cory Wade and Boone Logan give the Yankees a deep core of capable middle relievers and once Andy Pettitte joins the rotation, David Phelps or Phil Hughes would add another solid arm to the 'pen.
So, I'll state this delicately: Being the best closer in the world doesn't mean you're the most valuable player on the team. Here's another way of putting this. From 1997 through 2011, the Yankees won 97.2 percent of the games they led heading into the ninth inning. The Pittsburgh Pirates, a team that featured infamous closers such as Rich Loiselle, Mike Williams, Jose Mesa, Matt Capps and Octavio Dotel during that span, won 94.7 percent of games they led going into the ninth. The San Diego Padres, where Hoffman pitched for many of those years, won 96.7 percent of their games.
That doesn't mean Rivera isn't valuable; of course he is. Aside from his statistical dominance, there is the comfort level of having him sitting down in the bullpen, that calming influence like a little kid's stuffed animal. Maybe that can't be properly measured, and the first time Robertson blows a save or one of the other guys blows a lead in the eighth inning, fans and media and teammates may wonder: What if we had Mo?
But as David Cone said on the YES Network broadcast, "You never replace a Mariano Rivera; it's a huge blow. But the Yankees are dealing from strength, and one of their strengths is that bullpen."
In the end, we can disagree on what the loss of Rivera might mean to the Yankees. But I hope we all agree that we haven't seen Rivera throw his final pitch.
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