Mariano’s last waltzBy
Once upon a time, there was a pitcher named Mariano. He was no ordinary pitcher, you see. Every night, when the Yankees had the lead, he and his cutter would arrive to the famous guitar strains of a famous song and save the day. In and out, the cutter would dart and dash as another Yankee game would end in favor of the good guys.
The pitcher named Mariano arrived one day in 1995, and no one quite knew what to make of him. He began his baseball journey as a starting pitcher and as a top prospect, was nearly traded a few times before he developed the ability to throw in the upper 90s. Flashing glimpses of brilliance during the Yanks’ first playoff run in a baseball generation, Mariano came of age in the 1995 ALDS as he threw some key innings under some tight pressure.
The next year, that pitcher named Mariano matured into his own. He was the game’s best setup man, and a year later, he became the Yanks’ closer. Despite a home run by Sandy Alomar in 1997, the pitcher named Mariano has held down that role since the days before AOL. He has outlasted closers around baseball, racking up more saves than anyone in baseball history and five World Series rings. With that illustrious résumé, we forgive him some games in 2001 and 2004 because even the best are sometimes mortal.
Over the years, Pinstriped personalities have come and gone. He played with Don Mattingly, with David Cone and Paul O’Neill, with Bernie and Tino and Giambi. He saved more games for Andy Pettitte than any other tandem in baseball history, and for his latest trick, he even outlasted A.J. Burnett in the Bronx.
But now it sounds as though the end is 162 regular season games and, hopefully, a playoff run away. While speaking with reporters in Tampa on Monday, Mariano waxed poetically about his career. This is his golden season — number 42 is 42 years old — and the end may be near. “I know now,” he said. “I just don’t want to tell you. I know now. I will let you guys know when I think I should tell you.”
He spoke about life this winter when vocal surgery had the Yanks’ closer and all of his fans worried about the C word. “It scared me,” he said of his surgery. “I thought it could be cancer. I was relieved when everything came back negative. But it tells you how quick everything could be gone.”
He spoke of the finality of his own personal decision. “Even if I save 90 games. Even if they want to pay as much money as they want to, any team. I know what I’m going to do,” he said as Jack Curry’s own reporting suggested retirement.
The pitcher named Mariano, a religious man devoted to his family, could pack it in soon. Yankee fans around the globe could watch an icon step away from the game when he’s still good enough to get out the toughest hitters. We could watch the teflon closer call it a career. We could watch the pitcher named Mariano, a favorite to generations of Yankee fans who have never seen anything quite like him or his prized cutter, take that final curtain call.
If the 2012 baseball season were a movie of Mariano’s life, it would fade to black with only one ending. The skinny balding guy with his cool and calm demeanor would fire one more strike past one more batter to record the final out of the World Series. It’s baseball’s equivalent of Hollywood’s ride into the sunset. But in baseball as in life, there are no guarantees of an easy championship, and so if this is indeed Mariano’s last season, we’ll treasure that pitch. One day, we’ll tell our grandchildren of how we grew up watching that pitcher named Mariano, and it was always a real treat.