In 1996, the New York Yankees were the first team, and possibly the only team in major-league history, to have two roster players named Mariano: Duncan and Rivera. The latter, the famous one, injured himself during outfield practice at one of the most beautiful stadiums in Major League Baseball: in Kansas City.
If this is the end, Rivera takes his place with Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, and Hoyt Wilhelm as the greatest relief pitchers ever. In fact, no one is close to “closer” Rivera. (Cricket fans: The Closer is an ultra-specialized pitcher, who is summoned to get the final three or four, or rarely five, outs in a close game. The role evolved roughly from the late-1970s. We talk about this in Right Off the Bat, page 140 of the print edition.)
If this is the end for Rivera, a superb athlete in his early forties, his uniform number, by chance Jackie Robinson’s retired-throughout-baseball number 42, will never be seen on a major-league shirt except for Oldtimers’ Day. Age (Rivera’s birth day was November 29, 1969) and number and greatness match. Rivera grew up in poverty, well beyond Robinson’s experiences, in Panama. Rivera did it all from within.
This “end”—again, should it be career-threatening as it presently seems—is like a death. Not a real one. Richard Burbage, the leading actor in Shakespeare’s company, died many times. So did David Garrick. Marlon Brando couldn’t count the number of times he had expired. In a form of entertainment, ballplayers die also—when they have to call it quits.
Rivera had not announced plans for 2013. It was widely speculated (even as he once said that he desired to close games till he was fifty) this would be the final season, the last curtain. The real deaths of great, in-career baseball players summoned—such as Lou Gehrig too soon after retirement from the disease that carries his name and took his life, Roberto Clemente, and Thurman Munson (each in a plane crash)—are tragic. The retirement-in-injury is the actors’ threnody of a ballplayer: and almost as moving.