This month, we asked our writers to revisit their most indelible memories of 2012.
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I don’t want to imply that a knee injury has historical significance on par with major national events. That said, I do remember exactly where I was when Mariano Rivera was injured, and I expect I always will.
Partly that’s because I happened to be at a baseball event. Partly it’s because of who Rivera is and the place he has in my baseball world, which is now also my professional world and bleeds over into my personal world too.
On the evening of May 3, I left my then-job and walked east across Manhattan to the Bergino Baseball Clubhouse on East 11th Street, which was hosting an opening for the latest baseball card set from artist Amelie Mancini. She’d done a series of “Bizarre Injuries” cards that I was given in 2011 (“Glenallen Hill crashed into a glass table while having a nightmare about being covered in spiders,” “Nolan Ryan was bitten by a coyote,” etc.) and was now putting out two “Marvelous Mustaches” packs, pretty much the epitome of an automatic purchase for me.
I had admired the mustache cards and was chatting with a few Mets fan friends when I saw faces drop around me. I turned around to see something unimaginable unfold on TV: Mariano Rivera was clutching his knee in obviously intense pain. He had been shagging fly balls, which all close-followers of the Yankees know he does -- or used to do – regularly. He did it because he loved it and teammates always claimed that, if he ever got the chance, he’d be the best outfielder on the team. That night, my friends and I watched Rivera get carted off the field in near-silence, stunned; all I remember anyone saying, even the Mets fans, was some variation on “Oh no.”
Now, I don’t want to be overdramatic here. Mariano Rivera did not die. Hell, it seems he did not even end his career -- though that was the initial worry with his torn anterior cruciate ligament, since Rivera had already been considering retirement. A pitcher got hurt, not exactly uncommon in baseball. And Rivera was not a young player whose life path might now forever be altered. He was 42, near the end of his career -- so, if the end came a few months earlier than anyone expected, well, is that such a big deal, really?
Logically, no. But, apparently, for me, yes. On the scale of real-life important things, this was nothing, but it was jarring anyway, to an extent that surprised me. I never enjoy seeing players get hurt, but this was more than that -- I was viscerally upset in a way that I almost never am about sports anymore.
Years of writing about the Yankees professionally mean that I’m not a fan the way I used to be. I wish the Yankees the best, but there is a distance there now. I don’t get upset when they lose. I don’t go nuts when they win. I watch with no less interest but a lot less emotional investment. It’s just what happens as your entertainment turns into your job. Sometimes, people tell me they think that’s sad, and I used to think it was too, but I don’t feel that now -- I love baseball no less and I get paid to watch and edit and write about it, so I’m certainly not complaining.
The thing is, Mariano Rivera, and my feelings for him, totally predate all that professional detachment. He’s one of the few active players that can still bring those old, entirely subjective feelings back.
When Rivera became a star for the Yankees, in 1996, I was 14. Through high school and college and the years after, when I was working as an assistant and a bookseller and a copywriter, Mariano Rivera was the closest to perfect that I’ve ever seen in an athlete, and maybe the closest anyone’s ever seen. Look at his numbers, regular season and postseason. They are beautiful. Really: beautiful. Turn them upside down and sideways and every which way. Check out the traditional stats and the advanced metrics. It doesn’t matter how you look at them; his statistics are otherworldly. Which only backs up my memories of watching him pitch just that amazingly hundreds of times, ever since I was 14 years old. During all that time, Rivera has thrown over 1,200 regular-season innings and another 141 in October. I missed some of those, of course… but I saw most of them.
In 2006, I went into a baseball locker room for the first time in my life, and while I trust that I’ve never been anything less than professional in Rivera’s presence, well, it’s difficult to override an adolescence and early adulthood spent thinking that the man is possibly some sort of deity. I know he’s just a guy. I fully realize that, like most professional athletes and indeed most people, he is probably not exactly a saint. It doesn’t matter. I know that, but I don’t feel it. He’s also probably the only athlete I instinctively refer to by his first name. I have to force myself to write Rivera, not Mariano.
So, when I saw him get hurt, it touched a part of me that sports doesn’t quite reach anymore. Sure, it was sad and upsetting. But it was also a little reassuring to know that there was something in me that can still get that shaken up over a knee injury. When Derek Jeter went down with his broken ankle in the playoffs, it wasn’t quite the same feeling; I was in the press box, I was on deadline, it was work. Besides, Yankees fans and chroniclers have been forced to confront Jeter’s mortality already by witnessing his declining defense and down years offensively. But Rivera has been a machine of pitching perfection, the occasional postseason glitch aside. So this was an entirely new experience.
What will happen to Mariano in 2013? Nothing would surprise me. Of course, I would not be surprised if he is great, because he always has been, even at 42. On the other hand, it would hardly be a shock if the combined effects of age and injury caught up to him at last. Who knows how the rehabbed knee will affect his pitching? Maybe this is the year he’s finally just good, but not great. It would be hard to complain. He’s well past due.
So, yes, his crazy streak of dominance has to end sometime. But I hope it’s not quite yet. There will never be another Mariano Rivera -- but, even if somehow there were one, I’d never be able to feel the same way about him.