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Monday, May 20, 2013
At 43, Mariano Rivera keeps on dominating

When you're a 43-year-old baseball player, you're supposed to be raking your kids' Little League field.

Or working tirelessly to drive those par-5's in two.

Or keeping Curt Schilling and Mark Mulder company on the Baseball Tonight set.

Or ... you could be Mariano Rivera.

And be well on your way to going down in history as the greatest 43-year-old athlete in pretty much any sport.

Think about this, ladies and gentlemen. Mariano Rivera is older than Benny Agbayani -- and he's leading the American League in saves.

He's older than Darren Dreifort -- and he has a sub-1.00 WHIP (0.92).

He's older than Rich Garces -- and he's ripped off 16 saves in 16 opportunities.

He's older than Carlos Perez -- and those poor hitters who face him are batting .118 (2-for-17, with seven strikeouts) when, by some miracle, there's a runner in scoring position.

We could go on. But you get the JPEG. This man is greatness personified. Still. So it's time to appreciate what we're watching here, because this isn't supposed to happen.

Not to men who are 43 years old.

And especially not to 43-year-olds who are pitching on a reconstructed knee, after missing nearly an entire season.

We've been through the annals of the four major professional sports. We've looked at everyone in modern times who played those sports at this age or older. What we've concluded is:

This is pretty much impossible.

And pretty much unprecedented.

Take a look:

• In the NFL: No one this old ever started more than SIX games in a season. And the only guy this old to make a Pro Bowl was a KICKER (John Carney).

• In the NBA: Only one player this age or older ever even appeared in 20 games or more in a season. That was Robert Parish, who averaged about four points and two rebounds a game for the '96-97 Bulls.

• In the NHL: There was the Satchel Paige of hockey (Gordie Howe), who once scored 15 goals at age 51. And there was Mark Messier, who racked up 18 goals and made an All-Star team at 43. And there was Doug Harvey, who also made an All-Star team (as a defenseman) a few weeks after turning 44. But with all due respect to those men, there was no one like this.

And then there's baseball. Here's your basic Old Guy Hall of Fame in Mariano Rivera's sport:

• Knuckleball kings: Hoyt Wilhelm was an All-Star and saved 13 games at age 47. Pretty cool. And Phil Niekro went 17-4, made an All-Star team and got four second-place Cy Young votes at age 43, then made another All-Star team at age 45. Also excellent. But neither were quite The Very Best Alive at what they did.

• The Nolan Ryan phenomenon: The Ryan Express led his league in strikeouts and WHIP at age 43, and even got a 10th-place MVP vote. But seven pitchers got Cy Young votes that year. He wasn't one of them. Nevertheless, we'll nominate Ryan as the gold standard for dominance at age 43-plus. Heck, he was still spry enough to punch out Robin Ventura at age 45.

• The Jamie Moyer experience: Another category unto himself. Moyer went 16-7 for the 2008 Phillies at age 45 and started a World Series game. And his 64 wins after his 43rd birthday are the most all-time for a non-knuckleballer. He kept doing that thing he did until age 49. But you can decide for yourself whether the word "dominator" applies to him in any sense.

• The Jack Quinn saliva show: We have no idea how to categorize Quinn, a legalized spitballer who pitched until 50, won 18 games at age 45 and started a World Series game (in 1930) at 46. But according to the awesome book, "The Ballplayers," Quinn was "always vague about his birth date." So he deserves an asterisk just for that. Who did he think he was? Fausto Carmona?

• Position players: Did you know there has never been a single position player Rivera's age who even had a season worth TWO Wins Above Replacement? Nevertheless, we should at least tip our caps to Carlton Fisk for hitting 18 homers at 43, to Pete Rose for rolling up a .395 on-base percentage at 44 and to Julio Franco for just being Julio Franco. But no hitter this age ever led his league in any significant offensive category. So we see no equivalent to Mariano Rivera among any position player of modern times. None.

But now let's add in another factor that no spread sheet on earth can measure:

There's something that happens when Mariano Rivera just enters a game that very, very, very few people in sports have ever inspired:

That feeling that something special is taking place, and it's a privilege just to watch it.

It isn't only Yankees fans who feel it, either. It's the citizens of baseball. Almost all of them.

"I'm going to relish every chance I get to see him pitch," one scout was saying last week. "I actually used to leave when he came in, because once you see him one time, you know you're never going to change your report. But this year, I stayed to the end every time and sat in traffic, because I want to relish every chance I get to watch him pitch."

We remind you that scouts are people who watch about 2.8 trillion baseball games a year. On the average, seven pitchers show up on the mound in every one of them. If there was a word we'd use to describe how those scouts feel about most of those pitchers, "reverence" wouldn't be the first word we'd think of.

But it is when it comes to the Great Mariano.

"He's got the greatest delivery I've ever seen -- and it's held up for 43 years," said one longtime AL scout. "Everything just works so perfectly. It's like one of those great, antique autos that just keeps on going."

"I'm a pitching guy," said an NL scout, "who looks at pitchers and sees a whole generation of pitchers who can't maintain their deliveries. And this guy's delivery has been impeccable -- for 20 years. He never comes out of that delivery. And he throws strike after strike after strike. It's amazing."

The delivery. What will we remember about it when he's gone? The toe tap. The easy coil into the stretch. The left knee lifting to exactly the same spot, just north of the hip bone. The silky motion that takes him from stretch to release point in a millisecond. The perfect follow-through, everything pointing toward the target, nothing out of whack.

It's all so effortless, he could be playing catch on the beach. But no. This is the launch pad for maybe the single most devastating pitch in baseball history -- Mariano Rivera's cutter -- and has been for just about ever.

"I don't know if anyone in the history of the game consistently repeated his delivery for such a long period of time," said Orioles manager -- and Mariano Rivera's first big-league manager -- Buck Showalter.

And it's a delivery, said one scout, that has proven to be more than merely a means to sustain success. It's a statement about the man, not just the pitcher.

"To me, it's a reflection of who he is," the scout said. "You know how the old golfers used to talk about guys with great swings and easy actions? That holds true for him, too, I think. Easy and smooth. That's who he is. Those things go hand in hand when you're talking about the great ones."

And now here he is, at age 43, still as dominating as he ever was. Still destroying lumber, egos and batting averages, pitch after pitch after bat-eating pitch.

"He may be the best pitcher we have ever seen," said Blue Jays broadcaster Buck Martinez, "given that he masters the strike zone against the toughest hitters, only when the game's on the line, and does it with one pitch."

Has there ever been another pitcher, another baseball player, another athlete, in any of the four major sports who was still The Best There Is as he cruised into his mid-40s? We've looked and looked and looked. We're more convinced than ever:

There has never been anyone like this. And it's likely there never will be.

"It's the cycle of life," said one NL scout, "and how hard it is to stay on top. Once you've gotten there, it's easy to go down quick. But this guy got to the top and stayed there. For almost 20 years. I've never seen anything like it."

But that, of course, is because we've never seen anyone like the Great Mariano. And thankfully, the show continues. Same as it ever was. For at least another few months.