By now, as he enters his 18th season, Mariano Rivera has had nearly every sports accolade showered upon him. Considered the greatest reliever of all time, Rivera has been a constant for the Yanks in the ninth inning since 1997, and he was a force the season before. Now, five World Series and five Presidential elections later, Rivera is just as good as ever. He just allowed his first Spring Training hit on Sunday.
Rivera’s career has been, by any stretch, an odd one for baseball analysts to comprehend. For years, they’ve predicted a decline. He threw 80 innings as a 31-year-old in 2001 and appeared in only 45 games the next season. Joe Girardi has limited Rivera’s innings over the last few years, but even while throwing around only 60 innings, Rivera is still at the top of his game.
Last year, at age 41, Rivera with his cutter managed to strike out nearly a batter an inning while issuing just eight walks all season — two of those intentionally. He gave up just three home runs all season and made his fourth straight All-Star team en route to a season with 44 saves and a 1.91 ERA.
So what can we expect from Rivera? Over the past few years, his velocity has dipped to the low-90s, but his pinpoint control and the movement he gets out of his pitches has allowed him to excel. As analysts see his pitches grow less fine and slow down, the end is always near for Rivera, but the end has never arrived.
We could then worry about what a 42-year-old closer may bring to the Yanks, but that’s not the storyline that will surround Rivera this year. Earlier this spring, with rumors of an impending final season and subsequent retirement swirling, Rivera announced, well, nothing. He knows what he’s going to do, but he’s keeping it to himself. We’ll just have to wait it out until Rivera is good and ready to announce his plans for 2013.
Of course, by saying nothing, Rivera seemingly speaks volumes about his future. Observers in Tampa feel he is savoring Spring Training more so this year than ever before. He has his family in tow, and he’s treating it like a year to remember. These are signs that scream “the end is near.”
If it’s the end, Rivera will earn his toasts. He’ll take his farewell tour through the league, and the calm professionalism with which he does his job will be long remembered. The Yanks will try to find another closer, something they haven’t had to do since the mid-1990s, but as life moves forward, so too will baseball. Rivera will become part of the Yanks’ rich history.
Maybe Rivera will surprise us all. Maybe he’ll announce that he’s never going to quit. But with Andy Pettitte set to return, the Yanks could be set up for a literal storybook ending. No closer has saved more games for a starter in baseball history than Rivera has for Pettitte. So the season — and Rivera’s career — could very well end with Number 42 nailing down a save for Number 46 one more time. What Yankee fan would have it any other way?