Commentary

Mo chased ball like he chased dream

Injured Mo was being Mo, going after what he wanted with child's enthusiasm

Updated: May 5, 2012, 4:16 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

Nothing about Mariano Rivera, greatest of them all, has ever made much sense. He was signed for a lousy three grand out of a faraway fishing village, left unprotected in an expansion draft and dismissed as a non-prospect who would never overcome elbow surgery and his garden-variety stuff.

So it's fitting that the potential end of his career -- and Rivera swore Friday it will not be the end -- unfolded in a most improbable way. Rivera wasn't on the mound in Kansas City, sawing bats in half with the game's most devastating pitch. He was chasing a fly ball in batting practice, a 42-year-old man acting very much like a 12-year-old boy.

And that was the only beautiful part of the ugliest possible scene. Rivera was showing everyone how he came from nothing and nowhere to build a New York Yankees legend that will endure like the Babe's, the Clipper's and the Mick's.

[+] EnlargeMariano Rivera
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesMo Rivera brought his unbridled joy with him during his voluntary duty of shagging fly balls.

Mo did it by chasing the possibilities with a child's wonderment.

"It's still a kid's game," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said Friday by phone.

That's why outfielders want to be infielders in BP, why infielders throw curveballs and knuckleballs on the side, and why Rivera has spent his entire baseball life using his easy, athletic grace to track fly balls near big league walls.

Only this time, Rivera's right knee blew up, he crashed into the wall and collapsed in a heap. He grabbed his knee as his face tightened into an unruly knot, betraying the pain and fear.

"It's something you're not used to seeing with Mo," Cashman said. "You never see him down or hurt. You never see anything but his smile, and suddenly we all saw an expression on his face we've never seen before: pain and worry.

"It was unsettling, and it catches you off guard. That's why fans in the East, West, North and South stopped and paused and said, 'Oh my god, what's going on?' You always think Mariano is going to be OK, only this time he's not OK."

On Friday, Rivera promised reporters in Kansas City that he will be OK sooner than anyone might have thought. "I'm coming back," he said. "Write it down in big letters … I'm not going out like this."

The closer said that he had something of an epiphany in his hotel room, that he realized he couldn't let a physical breakdown in warm-ups before stunned teammates stand as his last act on a ballfield.

"Miracles happen," said the man with the miraculous career.

Rivera had come a long way in less than a day. Fighting back tears the night before, Rivera told reporters he didn't know whether he'd ever again unleash his cutter. It was hard to watch a dignified figure confront such an undignified fate.

"It's a reminder that we're all human," Cashman said. "Mariano is Superman, but he isn't superhuman."

The news of his injury spread across the city like you wouldn't believe. The last time a basketball game at the Garden was overtaken by a big Yankees dispatch, George Steinbrenner was making a last-second save on Bernie Williams, rescuing him from Boston with an $87.5 million deal on Thanksgiving eve.

The vibe was different Thursday night at the Knicks-Heat game -- much different. Rivera had conquered all. As a young boy in Panama, he converted tree branches into bats, fishing nets and electrical tape into balls, and milk cartons and cardboard into gloves. He was a shortstop, then a starting pitcher and finally, a closer who inspired Derek Jeter to call him a "once-in-a-lifetime player."

Jeter almost never speaks in absolutes. But when asked once whether Rivera was the best Yankee he'd played with, the shortstop said, "Yes, no question."

Jeter also delivered this line: "You can add up all the players that have ever played the game, and Mo's been as consistent as anyone."

That consistency carried him to age 42 and to a record 608 saves. So did his unbreakable focus. The Yankees' longtime development guy, Mark Newman, called Pete Rose, Jack Nicklaus and Mariano Rivera "the greatest concentrators" he'd ever seen.

But Rivera's legacy is about so much more than high performance. "As impossible as it was for him to achieve greatness," Cashman said, "it's even more impossible for him to never change as a person. Celebrity and financial success changes everyone, and yet it didn't change Mo, not even a little. That's the most impressive thing about him."

Mo was always the perfect choice to retire Jackie Robinson's 42. So when he was carted off the field, "everyone around sports felt badly about it," Cashman said, "including the fans in Boston."

Like Williams before him, Rivera actually considered ending his career with the Red Sox. "It was real," he said at his locker once. "It was very real."

Only Cashman prevented the unthinkable in a meeting with Mo in the closer's Westchester home. The GM told Rivera to knock it off, to surrender to the inevitability that he'd end his career as a Yankee.

They shook hands on a new deal. "It definitely would've been weird to play for Boston," Rivera said. "I mean, I was born here and I'm just going to keep it like that. Simple."

His plan of attack has been simple from start to finish: Here's my cutter. Good luck hitting it.

And when an opponent made contact the way Sandy Alomar Jr. made contact on that homer in the '97 playoffs, Rivera made no concessions. "He was lucky," the proud Mo maintained.

In fact, millions of New Yorkers were the lucky ones. The Yankees could have lost Rivera in the '92 expansion draft, and they nearly traded him a couple of times after that. Gene Michael, executive and scout, called Rivera's stuff "mediocre," at least until he started lighting up radar guns across the minor leagues, his surge in velocity coming out of left field.

The magical mystery cutter took care of the rest.

Rivera was considering retirement at the end of this season, and a terrible thing happened on the way there. Age can't be blamed for his torn ACL and meniscus, not when the much younger Derrick Rose and Iman Shumpert were eliminated from the NBA playoffs with their own devastating knee injuries.

A kid's game can take a heavy toll on athletes of all ages, and sometimes in the strangest ways. On opening night in 2003, Jeter wrecked his shoulder colliding with a backup catcher at third base.

Thursday night, the closer might have closed out his career trying to catch a practice ball hit by Jayson Nix, of all people, a utilityman about to play his first game as a Yank.

"If it's going to happen like that," Rivera said, "at least let it happen doing something I love, you know. And shagging, I love to do."

Now Rivera is promising to return, no questions asked, and who would ever doubt him?

Truth is, nobody needs to see Mo unleash another bat-shattering cutter. But for the sake of a happier ending, an ending Rivera deserves, here's hoping the closer nails his comeback.

Here's hoping the man gets to act like a boy one more time, in Yankee colors, chasing a fly ball the way he chased his faraway dream.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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