Commentary

Best Big Apple comeback ever?

Mariano Rivera is making his return from ACL surgery look easy as 1-2-3

Updated: May 16, 2013, 11:41 AM ET
By Andrew Marchand | ESPNNewYork.com

This past NFL season, a 36-year-old Peyton Manning shook off four neck surgeries and the rust of a year off to nearly win the MVP.

In the NBA, Michael Jordan won three championships, spent almost a full season away and came back at 31 years old to win another three titles.

In hockey, a 29-year-old Mario Lemieux returned from Hodgkin's lymphoma after missing a full season and won the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP.

And now, here is Mariano Rivera at 43, adding to his legend and putting his name in this exclusive club of iconic sports comebacks.

Still, what the indisputable greatest closer of all time is doing in 2013 makes even the man who might be the second-best ever sound as if he is in awe.

"He is going to go out on top," said Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, who is a TBS MLB analyst. "He is just too great."

Eckersley thought the tearing of the anterior cruciate ligament in Rivera's right knee might even limit his greatness. Combining the injury with age and a supposedly weaker Yankees lineup, Eckersley thought Rivera might need some WD-40 in the first month of the season.

"If [the knee was] bad, it was not going to be very good at all," Eckersley said. "Think about it. More than anything when you get that age is the inconsistency. If they pick the wrong night to go down to you, you are in trouble."

There haven't been any wrong nights so far. On pace for 66 saves, he is 16-for-16 in save opportunities, more than halfway to his best start ever (28-for-28 in 2008). His most saves in one season was 53 in 2004.

If you could have one closer for this October, the been-there, done-that, calmer-than-a-yogi Rivera still has to be the choice.

"Mariano's been Mariano," an AL scout said. "He's got the command. He adds and subtracts a little bit on his cutter. Mariano is still the best in the business, to me."

(For a detailed look at exactly how he's doing it, click here.)

Rivera is reaching unprecedented heights for a closer, whose baseball life usually end at 40, if not well before.

From ages 35 to 39, Eckersley and Rivera had nearly identical numbers. Eckersley had more saves (197 compared to 190), while Rivera's ERA was better (1.89 versus 2.62). Rivera also allowed fewer walks and hits per nine innings (0.90) than Eckersley (0.97).

By 40, Eckersley -- who had a previous life as an elite starter -- knew he was just hanging on with a near 5.00 ERA and 29 saves in his last season with the A's in 1995. In his final three seasons, Eckersley had only 67 saves, a 3.89 ERA and a WHIP of 1.19.

Rivera is still serenely dominating.

"He is a unique guy in every way," Eckersley said. "First of all, he is gifted. It is beyond all that. He is one of a kind. The thing I like about him more than that is the aura when you are around him. He seems so peaceful and centered.

"It is a very unique guy. Not everybody is humble and graceful, to be that type of a player."

The aura doesn't change. The consistency is still there. The velocity is down only a tick from 90.5 mph last April to 90.2 mph this one.

"It looks effortless," Eckersley said. "It is just that one step and it is next to his ear. And the repeating is what is incredible."

If Rivera continues the way he has started, he belongs in the conversation with Manning, Jordan, Lemieux and any other all-time iconic comebacks. If he ends with the final save of this October, it might make Rivera's return the most legendary tale of them all.

Andrew Marchand is a senior writer for ESPNNewYork. He also regularly contributes to SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight, ESPNews, ESPN New York 98.7 FM and ESPN Radio. He joined ESPN in 2007 after nine years at the New York Post. Follow Andrew on Twitter »

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