Commentary

At 39, the great Rivera fighting mortality

Down one moment and up the next, Yankees' closer continues to relish the battle

Originally Published: June 12, 2009
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

To the glee of some and the annoyance of others, the superpowers still move baseball's most important needles. Still, the Red Sox and Yankees swallow up airwaves and the bandwidth like oxygen-choking mega-factories, much to the disappointment of baseball fans intrigued by interesting but less influential clubs -- the Detroit Tigers or the curious Toronto Blue Jays, for example.

Both remain the yardstick for all challengers, even though Tampa Bay won the division and the pennant last year. While first-place Texas was in the process of completing a 3-3 road trip through New York and Boston, Rangers manager Ron Washington was inundated with the question of whether his American League West-leading club rated with the elite two of the East.

[+] EnlargeMariano Rivera
AP Photo/Kathy WillensMariano Rivera is second all-time with 526 saves, and he also has a 2.25 career ERA.

"That club over there," Washington said one day in New York, pointing in the direction of the Yankees' clubhouse, "is a perennial championship club. You have to remember that even when they have a bad year, they're still winning 90 ballgames a year, at least."

And so their reputations continue to intimidate, and both teams are still 1-2 in the AL East standings, but more than any time over the past dozen years, mortality and regeneration seem to define both teams. Manny Ramirez is gone, Curt Schilling is retired, and the wilting of David Ortiz has been well documented. Joe Torre is gone, the Yankees have at least four frontline players new to the historical inter-city drama, and the continuous core of the great dynasty -- Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera -- is but a trio.

Perhaps more than all of his counterparts, it is Rivera who even at this mature stage of his career remains the most important yet least known member of the dynasty -- both in his past deeds and his present twilight. He is the greatest closer in the history of the position; he currently has, along with Posada, the most continuous service in the Yankees organization; and as he ages -- indeed, even as he finally descends to a mortal level -- he moves with an august poignancy.

Beyond the numbers, Rivera has always been intriguing. He sports a professional elegance that suggests he is beyond the daily cacophony, the me-show. He is a Yankee but does not engage in the silliness of the Red Sox-Yankees narrative that each side instigates and that makes each side richer. Rivera is a man of God, yet he makes no audacious show of his religiosity, no obnoxious pointing to the heavens that has essentially become the game's tired and indirect taunt du jour. If there lies in him an additional joy or anxiety today, now that his efficient dispatch is no longer a guarantee, he does not show it. He finishes every save with a simple, businesslike handshake with his catcher, as he did when he was unhittable. He is the anti-Papelbon, the anti-K-Rod.

Only once in his career has he ever lowered the mask: Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, the Aaron Boone game. Rivera had pitched three scoreless innings that game, a game that he and all the Yankees knew they should have lost early on -- yet Boone hit an 11th-inning, pennant-winning home run off Tim Wakefield. While the rest of the Yankees mobbed home plate and Boone, Rivera, the hero, sprinted to the pitcher's mound and collapsed onto it face-first, exhaling, exhausted.

He is quick with laughter but serious about his profession, and he is only partially joking when he chides the press for failing to speak even passable Spanish in an industry that -- the minor leagues included -- is more than 40 percent Latino. In no other field, Rivera tells me, would such a distance between subject and journalist be allowed to exist.

There is with Rivera a larger perspective. If he chides reporters for not meeting Latino players halfway on the language, he is even tougher on Latino players who refuse to speak or learn English. He tells the younger players that failure to take advantage of English will not only limit their earning power with advertising and endorsements but also leave them vulnerable to being misrepresented by the press and the front office with whom they cannot communicate on equal footing. Rivera sees any Latino player who fails to protect himself as professionally negligent.

At present, he cuts an enigmatic figure. Rivera is 39 and coming off shoulder surgery, and his greatest weapon -- his air of stoic invincibility -- has been assaulted by time, the stunning failures at the hands of the Red Sox, and the growing sense that after all these years, maybe he can finally be had.

Rivera and Ortiz -- two of the more venerable symbols of their respective franchises -- are fighting mortality, each individual battle signaling the hard truth that one day we're all going to have to get used to someone else doing the job. Like Ortiz, Rivera represents a certain constancy. When Ortiz came to bat in big situations, you knew electricity was possible, even probable. When Rivera took the mound, you knew the suspense, the rally, the trouble would be efficiently disposed of.

Mariano Rivera You don't do this for money. I only do this because I love it. I love the competition, the chance to do this. I don't worry about it. When it's time. You know when it's time. When it is no more fun, when you can't do it, or when the Yankees tell me to go, I'll go.

-- Mariano Rivera

But unlike Ortiz, who is fighting for his professional career right now, Rivera's decline is hard to pin down. His vital statistics suggest only that he is failing to maintain his sterling standards; his average of 1.8 home runs per nine innings is the highest of his career. Between 1996 and 2008, his highest total had been 0.6. His average of 9.2 hits per nine innings is the highest since his rookie season in 1995 and until this year had topped 8.0 only twice in the 13 seasons sandwiched in between.

His 3.20 ERA is the highest of his career since 1996, when he was converted full time to relief pitching, and in 13 full seasons in relief, he has finished with an ERA over 3.00 only once, in 2007. He has given up five home runs, and it isn't even the All-Star break. Rivera had given up five or fewer home runs the previous 13 consecutive years from 1996 to 2008.

The eye test suggests something a bit more serious. When he has sputtered, he's done so spectacularly against rivals whom he needs to fear him: the ninth-inning, game-tying, two-run homer to Jason Bay on April 24 in an eventual extra-innings loss by the Yankees, and two home flameouts against Tampa Bay, the latest coming last Saturday.

When he falters, or when his velocity remains low, the question hovers like a fog: Are we watching the inevitable decline that befalls all athletes? Is he still a championship closer? Dennis Eckersley, the Hall of Famer who revolutionized the one-inning save role that Rivera has perfected, wondered on-air during a recent Red Sox game what the end of Rivera would "look like." Would it be sudden or gradual? Would Rivera disappear from the game when his time came to leave, or would he hang on as he ebbed, a relief pitcher's Greg Maddux?

"Leave when it is time," Rivera said. "You don't do this for money. I only do this because I love it. I love the competition, the chance to do this. I don't worry about it. When it's time. You know when it's time. When it is no more fun, when you can't do it, or when the Yankees tell me to go, I'll go."

It is unclear whether Rivera's lowered velocity will return as his shoulder strengthens from surgery or whether he will be the same now as at the end of the season. His save on May 29 at Cleveland was a classic example: He finished off the Indians in the ninth but, according to the hometown YES Network broadcast, did not clock a pitch over 89 miles an hour.

And yet, Rivera is posting numbers most relievers would kill for. He is almost impossible to read. He appears vulnerable, but he's averaging 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings, the highest of his career. His average of 0.7 walks per nine is the lowest of his career. He has the lowest adjusted ERA in the history of the game. Maybe the eye test is playing tricks on us, but it won't forever.

"I never expected any of this," he told me one day before a game in a conversation about his inevitable place in the Hall of Fame. "I thought I would be happy if I played two, maybe three years. I just wanted to make the big leagues. I have been here 15 years now. Fifteen. Maybe I'll write a book one day. I have a lot to say, about a lot of things, but not yet. I'm still working."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.