Commentary

Old man Rivera won't roll along forever

Yanks have no Plan B if 40-year-old closer gets hurt or begins his inevitable decline

Updated: November 4, 2010, 8:11 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

As difficult as it may be for many of us to conceive, there will come a day when there will simply be no Mo.

For 15 major league seasons, Mariano Rivera has defied mundane comparisons with the merely mortal, because gods do not play by the same rules as the rest of us.

But the reality is that the bullpen god of the New York Yankees will turn 41 on Nov. 29 and will play most of the 2011 season at more than halfway to his 42nd birthday.

That is older than just about any other man in baseball history who did the same job that Rivera does, which is get the last three outs of a baseball game. Lee Smith, for years the all-time saves leader with 478, retired at 39. Although he hung on until he was 44, John Franco was done as a closer by 37. Hall of Fame closer Bruce Sutter retired at 35.

[+] EnlargeMariano Rivera
Tom Szczerbowski/US PresswireMariano Rivera works hard to stay in top form, and he needs to -- he turns 41 later this month.

Only Dennis Eckersley, another Hall of Famer, was able to get a save beyond his 43rd birthday, and that is exactly how many he got. One, in May 1998 with the Red Sox.

No regular closer has ever gotten a save older than that, although in 1933 one Jack Quinn, a month shy of his 50th birthday, finished a game for the Cincinnati Reds and has since been credited with a save, a stat that did not exist during his lifetime.

And last year, as Rivera was enjoying another brilliant, even jaw-dropping season at the age of 40-plus, another of the greats, Trevor Hoffman, was experiencing that sudden drop off the cliff that all athletes, sooner or later, must face.

The point is clear: As great as he has been and as immortal as he has often appeared, Mariano Rivera is at the stage of his life and career where a decline is not only probable, but inevitable.

It may be gradual or it may be precipitous. It may come this year or next year. There is no precedent in baseball history for it to hold off any longer than that, and to think otherwise is simply to be in denial.

There is a difference in predicting the downfall of a great player and simply looking at the reality of what it means to be a human being. And, despite all statistical evidence to the contrary, Mariano Rivera is a human being.

As such, it is time the Yankees began planning for their future without him. And as of right now, they have no Plan B if Rivera gets injured or decides to retire (highly unlikely) or takes that ride down the slide that everyone knows is coming, although no one has any idea when.

If nothing else, Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson have proven themselves incapable of assuming his role, and the Yankees' best bet, Kerry Wood, is a free agent and unlikely to come back. But the reality is, Rivera has set the bar so high that any successor will fare about as well as Larry Holmes did in trying to follow Muhammad Ali.

"The intent for the organization is to have them back," general manager Brian Cashman said last week at his State of the Yankees Address. "Them" referred, of course, to Rivera and Derek Jeter, the two free-agent icons for whom he must lock up new deals before the Yankees can even begin to explore the new frontiers of Cliff Lee or Carl Crawford or whatever other temptations the offseason toy shop holds for them.

Since then, Cashman has gone underground, huddling with Prince Hal and Boy George (his baby bosses, Hal and Hank Steinbrenner) to determine how many years and how much money to commit.

The Jeter puzzle is one he will have to study without my help for today. But the Mo conundrum is one that has strong precedents throughout baseball history, precedents that the Yankees would be foolish to ignore.

Understanding that you can make any point you like with statistics, and recognizing that Hoffman and Rivera play very different games, there is no getting around the fact that the Brewers closer, who is baseball's all-time saves leader with 601, is just the latest in a long line of closers to discover that while life may begin at 40, a career of slamming the door on professional baseball teams nearly always comes to an end by 42.

And the previous season is not always a good yardstick by which to predict the future.

In 2009, as a 41-year-old, Hoffman enjoyed a phenomenal season. In fact, many of his numbers mirrored Rivera's 2010. He had 37 saves (Rivera had 33), blew only four (Rivera blew five), posted an ERA of 1.83, his lowest since 1998 (Rivera's was 1.80).

But a year later, Hoffman blew four saves in April. Before Memorial Day, his ERA had ballooned to over 13.00. He lost his closer's role to John Axford, a journeyman called up hurriedly from Triple-A. Hoffman's decline was so rapid and so complete that his pitching coach, Rick Peterson, said, "You felt like crying for him. You never want to see someone at that level performing like that."

Hoffman's problem was that his fastball had declined from 89 mph in 2009 to about 84 mph in 2010, rendering his out-pitch, the changeup, ineffective.

Rivera, of course, works from a different tool box with just a single tool, a cut fastball that comes in heavy as a bowling ball and destructive as a chainsaw, shattering bats and batters along the way.

But there were signs in 2010 that some of the life in that pitch was ebbing away. Where once the cutter came in at a steady 94 mph, now it rarely topped 91. His strikeout ratio was significantly down -- 6.8 per nine innings pitched, his lowest since 2006 and the third-lowest of his career -- and his walks slightly up.

His command was at times a problem, and never wore than on Sept. 11, when a cutter got away him from him and plunked Texas' Jeff Francoeur with the bases loaded to force in the winning run.

That was the first of three blown saves in the space of two weeks for Rivera, who rebounded to pitch 6 1/3 scoreless innings in the postseason.

But it is not the run of blown saves or the loss of a tick or two off the radar gun that is most concerning.

It is the relentless ticking of the clock, a progression that no one, not even Rivera, can halt.

In the losing clubhouse after the Yankees were eliminated from the ALCS by the Rangers, Rivera was unusually reticent to discuss his future. A free agent for the first time since 2007, when he signed the three-year, $45 million contract that expired Monday with the end of the World Series, he refused to answer questions about his plans for 2011 and beyond. It is assumed, however, that he and the Yankees will quickly come to terms on a new contract, because they always have.

Just as it is assumed that Rivera will continue to do what he has always done on the mound, throw that cutter that drops like the lid of a coffin on an opposing team's hopes for a ninth-inning rally.

But history tells us it can't go on forever, simply because nothing ever has.

That is a reality the Yankees need to deal with, and sooner rather than later.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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