Commentary

Only human

By refusing to walk away, Mariano Rivera reveals his true character

Updated: May 18, 2012, 7:51 AM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN The Magazine

NY YankeesIllustration by Mark SmithRivera, who is 42, tore his ACL from shagging fly balls on May 3.

This story appears in the May 28 World Football Issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

"GOD IS MY FATHER," Mariano Rivera told me last September. "He will tell me what to do. I don't do anything without him."

The Yankees reliever was talking about his baseball mortality, about how he is not, unlike so many of his peers, addicted to the game, incapable of letting go when the time comes. It was a mysterious thought by a mysterious man. History tells us that the game and time are the two opponents that rarely lose; decline and defeat are the natural order of sports. But Rivera, beyond the human impulses of pride and vanity, would somehow be the one who'd win, because he was guided by something more powerful than desire.

Of course, his talent and calm comportment made others see him the same way. Joe Torre, who managed Rivera during his prime from 1996 to 2007, would often talk about the day his closer would no longer be incomparable. He didn't know where to begin, because the idea of seeing Rivera step onto the mound to dread and failure was so inconceivable at the time. He was seemingly immune to the forces that afflict his peers.

That illusion is now shattered. When the 42-year-old Rivera crumpled at the warning track on May 3, his right ACL torn from shagging fly balls -- his teeth bared as always but this time from agony instead of concentration -- there appeared to be a cruel mercy to it. Because the day that his admirers feared, the day he would walk into a game and be beaten by lesser combatants, would now never come. He would be today's Sandy Koufax or Ted Williams, two Hall of Famers whose last on-field images were triumphant. Williams famously homered in his final at-bat in 1960. Koufax pitched a three-hit shutout on two days' rest in Game 7 of the 1965 World Series, won his third Cy Young the next season and never looked back. The last on-field memory of Rivera would be of him shaking hands with his catcher after closing out the Orioles, his 608th save sealed.

But a day after the fluke injury that ended his season, Rivera said he was not retiring. By guaranteeing a comeback, he suddenly and for once sounded less guided by a higher calling. Instead, he sounded completely like an athlete, hungry for another victory over another opponent -- this one over his own body and the unpredictable circumstances that brought him down -- determined to be in control. He may still prove to be one of the few who beat the game, but it seems more likely now that he will enter the space of the rest, of the legends who held on too long, of Willie Mays unable to track fly balls or hit fastballs at the end, of Henry Aaron hitting .232 in his final two seasons, of Greg Maddux pitching to an ERA a full run higher in his final six seasons than the first 17 of his career.

But if Rivera has been reduced by this episode, he has also become more recognizable. In injury, the least known of the great Yankees offered the clearest blueprint of his true self. He is pure competition. He does not fear the end of his dominance, being drilled into retirement by guys who wouldn't have been able to touch him when he was beautiful, at his best. Those fears are for the people who love him, who love watching him, who hurt when he fails. They are not for the fighter. Humiliation to Rivera is not stepping onto the mound and being beaten, for losing is a part of competition. Humiliation is ending your career with a freak accident in the outfield at 5:30 p.m. instead of on the mound.

"I'm not going out like that," he said, the disgust of a great competitor felled by random injury lacing each word. "I don't want to go out because I hurt myself shagging fly balls. No."

Rivera was echoing the old saying that gunslingers die with their boots on, during the fight; he was saying that any other way is beneath him: "I want to leave because I don't want to do this anymore."

Rivera has always held himself at a certain elevated remove from the game, from his contemporaries, the child of God at peace, understanding that baseball is merely a part of his life. But Rivera's defiance to return sounded less elevated and all competitive fury, all fire, all vanity, all of the components required to win without the post-strikeout dances and histrionics. In wanting to write his own ending to his career, he was shockingly mortal. "Write it down in big letters," he said. "I'm coming back."

Rivera has finally told us, without mystery, exactly who he is.

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