Published May 04, 2012
NEW YORK – For 15 years, Mariano Rivera has decided when the game ends.
Even with a freakish injury that has likely ended his season, he is promising to close out his remarkable career on his own terms and vows to return no later than next spring.
Rivera confounded batters with a cut fastball that changed direction as it neared home plate, shattered bats by the hundreds and sent hitters back to the dugout muttering. In his time in New York, the Yankees added five World Series championships to their record total.
He's not ready to leave just yet.
In a sport filled with debate, there is little argument that Rivera is the standard that all future relief pitchers will measure themselves against.
"I wouldn't compare him with any starter, but I think by acclimation he's the greatest closer/relief pitcher in baseball history," broadcaster Bob Costas said Friday.
While shagging flies in batting practice before the game Thursday evening in Kansas City, the 42-year-old pitcher caught his foot on the edge of the warning track and his right knee buckled. He was lifted onto a cart and driven off the field that he so dominated.
Likely sidelined for the rest of a season by a torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus damage, Rivera needed less than 24 hours to make his decision. He had hinted at the start of spring training this was going to be his final year, but on Friday he made clear his intent to return 2013.
"I'm coming back," he said. "Write it down in big letters. I'm not going out like this."
In his native Panama, where he is revered, the injury dominated radio and TV, while the main newspaper La Prensa summed it up with the headline: "Alarma por Mariano" — "Alarms for Mariano."
He is Mr. Irreplaceable, but now the Yankees must find a substitute. The career of baseball's greatest closer will be on an extended pause after a record 608 saves, 76 wins, 18,847 pitches and a 2.21 ERA — the best since Walter Johnson retired in 1927.
"Obviously the greatest closer of all-time, who is obviously one of the greatest pitchers that's ever pitched," baseball historian Ken Burns said. "He's also one of the great heroes of the game in terms of being such an extraordinary human being — and I hate saying this. I'm a Red Sox fan."
In the postseason, Rivera was even more dominant with 42 saves and five World Series rings.
"You don't replace him," former teammate Paul O'Neill said. "He wasn't a guy who would pose and dance. He expected to get it done."
Opponents baffled by Rivera's pitches paid homage after learning of the injury.
"I always say that he's the best pitcher in the game that I ever seen," said David Ortiz of the rival Red Sox.
Yankees fans assumed that whenever they heard Metallica's "Enter Sandman" played as Rivera trotted to the mound, a win was guaranteed because of his cut fastball that broke in on the fists of left-handed hitters.
"If you're looking for a ranking of the great pitches in baseball history, it's in the top 10," said broadcaster Keith Olbermann, another student of baseball history, comparing it to Nolan Ryan's fastball, Bert Blyleven's curveball, Carl Hubbell's screwball, Christy Mathewson's fadeaway and Walter Johnson's fastball.
Rivera has been on the mound for the final out of 801 Yankees victories during the regular season — the most in major league history going back to 1921 — plus 67 more in the postseason, according to STATS LLC.
Rivera wasn't just a pitcher. He's been a constant as closer since 1997.
He had not been on the disabled list since 2003, and the bizarre injury this week had nothing to do with his seemingly rubber arm. He has always chased down fly balls in batting practice to stay in shape — and hoped to make at least one game appearance in the outfield.
His only trips to the disabled list were five brief stints for groin and shoulder strains in 1998, 2002 and 2003.
Even his uniform is an anachronism: He's the last player left wearing No. 42, among those allowed to retain it 15 years ago when Commissioner Bud Selig retired the number for all of baseball in honor of Jackie Robinson.
The Yankees counted on Rivera to be there, towering over their team like the Empire State Building over Manhattan. His teammates' shocked expressions needed no words. Without Rivera, the Yankees are as nervous and insecure as Linus without his blanket.
"The other side might feel a little better that Mo's not out there," said Los Angeles Dodgers manager — and former Yankees star — Don Mattingly. "I'd hate to see him end like this."
Rivera's success made the Yankees forget about his three most notable failures: the home run by Cleveland's Sandy Alomar Jr. in the 1997 playoffs, the ninth-inning rally by Arizona in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series and Boston's ninth-inning rally that started the Red Sox back from the brink of elimination in Game 4 of the 2004 AL championship series.
The injury was felt beyond baseball.
"For him to have a freak accident like that, you can't explain it," Miami Heat forward Lebron James said. "No one can explain it."
In ranking Rivera's place in history, Costas cites "the combination of endurance, excellence and prominence because of the team he pitched for and how successful they were and how successful he was in the postseason."
But that's not all.
"There's also the quality of personal grace and dignity," Costas said, "which would matter at any time, but stand out even more in this time."
Rivera already is in the Hall of Fame: his caps from the 2000 and 2009 World Series and from his 400th save in 2006, the spikes he wore when he became MVP of the 1999 Series, his jersey from the 2008 All-Star game and a ball from May 29, 2009, when Rivera and Andy Pettitte combined for their record 58th win and save together.
Rivera holds an outside hope of returning late this season but it doesn't appear likely. Milwaukee pitcher Yovani Gallardo, then 22, tore an ACL on May 1, 2008, and returned that Sept. 25.
New York Mets medical director Dr. David Altchek of the Hospital for Special Surgery said torn ACLs are "really, really uncommon" in baseball, especially among older players who don't generate explosive bursts when they run. Recovery time generally takes about six months.
Alchek operated on the pitcher's shoulder in 2008 and after speaking with Rivera on Friday said he was cautiously optimistic about chances for a full return.
"I don't think there's a baseball fan who wasn't moved today watching him nearly break down in front of reporters," Burns said. "For a person who's very controlled, this is devastating in every possible angle. He needed to go out not limping. This is a proud, proud human being."
Joe Torre, Rivera's manager from 1996-2007, also predicts he'll be back.
"Even though he has a tall mountain to climb," Torre said, "I think he still has a lot of fight left in him."
Cleveland outfielder Johnny Damon — a former Yankees teammate — agreed.
"Maybe this will give him the incentive to work hard and come back next year and disturb hitters for a while longer," he said.
AP Sports Writers Jay Cohen, Tim Reynolds and Dave Skretta; AP correspondent Juan Zamorano; and AP freelance writers Maureen Mullen and Chuck Murr contributed to this report.