The gifts, tasteful testimonies, standing Os and remembrances from around baseball are all paying Mariano Rivera respect and yet here in his final season, it's his 11th hour pitching that deserves all the praise.
Rivera isn't fitting the stereotype we've all come to expect. He's not some poor, aging star serving as a museum piece, living out his past while providing a flash or two of greatness. He's tied for second in the American League in saves and, with two weeks left, could get the third-highest single-season's worth of saves in his career. When you savor that fact for a moment, how Rivera is pushing those amazing boundries at age 43, doesn't this season rate as one of the best swan songs of all time? In any sport?
Nobody has reached Cooperstown on a unanimous vote but this final, splendid season could be the nudge that allows Rivera to become the first. This is shaping up as a dream season of sorts, and if the Yankees do reach the playoffs, Rivera and his playoff lifetime 0.70 ERA will feel quite at home. His arm, as we know, is made for October.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi wasn't stretching it the other day when he said Rivera could play at least one more season at an All-Star level. This sure feels and looks like the early 2000s every now and then. After 19 years in the majors, his cutter still gives batters fits and, more often than not, seals the win. Rivera's ERA is 2.30, a bit fluffy for him but not far off his lifetime 2.22. He also had his first four-out save in two years. Given the Yankees' injury rate and the number of replacements they've used this season to patch the lineup, Rivera has been about the most reliable player on the field this season.
At age 43.
In his so-long season.
This time last year, Chipper Jones was going out with a blast, although not exactly this strong. Also, remember that Rivera is coming off knee surgery, a burden for athletes his age. Some would've worked half as hard to return, knowing their legacy was intact regardless. And yet nothing seems to be an issue or a burden for Rivera, right here and right now.
"The fact that I'm able to pitch well is something I'm very happy about," he said. "I've always wanted to be at my best and to be productive. I'm a team player. I have to do whatever it takes to win."
It's one thing to marvel at his body of work, and another to see the lack of major slippage in 2013. Not many athletes at this stage in the game can hold up as well, physically or otherwise, and Rivera is joining a short list. Therefore, it begs to be asked: What kind of company is he keeping, in that respect? Who had the 10 best sunset years in sports history?
Let's list the honorable mentions first. A number of athletes managed to go out in style, which means they won titles. That's a bit different than going out on top, where you leave talent on the table.
Carl Lewis won gold in the long jump at the 1996 Olympics, and in a bigger surprise managed to sing the Anthem properly on the victory podium.
Michael Strahan won a Super Bowl and was still a useful player for the Giants, but no longer their best defensive lineman (Justin Tuck).
Jerome Bettis did one better: He won the Super Bowl played in his hometown of Detroit, thus taking his football career full circle.
Ray Bourque finally lifted the Stanley Cup in his final game, and it hardly mattered that it happened in Colorado and not Boston.
Mia Hamm, the greatest female soccer player in history, won Olympic gold, then married Nomar Garciaparra.
Pete Sampras didn't do much in his final season in tennis, except win the U.S. Open, which is kind of a big deal.
And David Robinson claimed an NBA title on his way out the door, which Tim Duncan had to hold open for him.
Because Rivera's season isn't done yet -- suppose he goes on an October tear? -- we'll refrain from ranking him just yet. Here's what Rivera is up against, though: the 10 best swan songs of all time.
10. John Elway. In his 16th and final season, all with the Broncos (sorry, Colts), his primary role was to give the ball to Terrell Davis, who was MVP of the NFL. For the first time in his career Elway wasn't the biggest threat on his team, but he was still very, very good; he ranked fifth in passing rating and had games of 338 yards and 400 yards. Age and physical limitations made him a more careful quarterback, too; Elway was no longer the gambler who threw lasers to receivers who were triple-covered, nor did he sprint from the pocket on a mad scramble. The coup was his Super Bowl when he threw an 80-yard TD, ran for another score and won MVP.
9. Jerry West. He said he retired because he could no longer meet the standard he set for himself. That was typical West, perhaps overly paranoid about his perception and place in the game. Get this: West averaged 20.3 points, 6.6 assists (from the big guard position) and 3.7 rebounds in his farewell season. And that, to him, represented the absolute bottom. It wasn't just about the numbers; West thought his defense, his reaction time and his shooting were all slipping. Along with an annoying groin injury (he played just 31 games in 1973-74), they conspired to nudge him into retirement at 36.
8. Joe Montana. The true greatness of Montana was confirmed once he got away from Jerry Rice and Bill Walsh and breathed life into the Chiefs. His running back was an old Marcus Allen and his receivers were Willie Davis and J.J. Birden and his coach was Marty Schottenheimer. It still ranks as one of the all-time second-acts, and in his final year, at age 38, Montana beat Steve Young and the Niners and won a shoot-out against John Elway on Monday Night Football that fulfilled the hype. Montana threw for 3,283 yards, won nine games and took the Chiefs to the playoffs but did not, in fact, hit a purse-snatcher in the head with a well-placed pass.
7. Rocky Marciano. It's always tricky trying to justify placing boxers in this category. There are too many sad comebacks to mention because most boxers aren't willing to leave a $20 million payday on the table. And then there are boxers who leave the sport while on the top only because there's no one left to fight. Floyd Mayweather might eventually go this route, and if he does, he'll follow Marciano, Lennox Lewis and Gene Tunney, three heavyweights who left the game as champions. Marciano was the best of them all, with a spotless record that was somewhat inflated by whipping an old Joe Louis and Jersey Joe Walcott.
6. Florence Griffith-Joyner. With very few exceptions, Jesse Owens in 1936 among them, no other track athlete had performances on the level of Flo-Jo in 1988. And none ever did it in their final season in the sport. She set two world sprint marks that still stand, 25 years later, in the 100 and 200 meters. She destroyed the field both at the U.S. Trials and then the Olympics and then, without warning, retired at 28. All of the above set off alarms in the steroid era, obviously, and the long-held belief in the track world is Flo-Jo retired right before testing procedures were about to stiffen. She never tested positive, for whatever that's worth, and became an international icon before she died in '98.
5. Lorena Ochoa. She's the greatest golfer you never heard of, and that's partly due to her leaving the game at age 28 and after only eight years on tour. But what an exit: In her final full season, she was named tour Player of the Year for the fourth straight year. She played 22 tournaments, won three, had four runner-ups and 13 top-10s, never missed the cut and ranked first in scoring. Then she said she was tired and wanted to go home to Mexico to start a family. Her departure, combined with the underachieving Michelle Wie and a struggling U.S. economy, was a sucker punch at the time to a women's game that's only now recovering.
4. Barry Sanders. Just as he did many linebackers who reached to tackle him, only to wind up with air, Sanders gave everyone the slip when he walked away from football after 10 seasons at age 31. He was just 1,457 yards short of the NFL career record at the time and two years into a six-year deal. Also, he showed little to no rust and wear despite the load he carried in Detroit, rushing for 1,491 yards (but only four TDs) in 1998. And this came a year after he broke loose for 2,053 yards. Sanders was weird that way; nobody knew what he was thinking, not even the Lions. Anyway, playing on so many crummy teams took their toll and Sanders saw no relief in sight from a franchise that never gave him a decent quarterback or superb defense. It was all Barry, all the time, from a terrific beginning to the terrific and unexpected end.
3. Bjorn Borg. He retired at 26, then lost a ton of money, then wished he'd played a few more years in his prime. In 1981, his final full season on tour, Borg won the French (for the sixth time) and made the final at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He was ranked No. 2 in the world. Does that sound like the track record of a guy who had nothing left to give? Borg has always been vague about his reasons for leaving the sport so early and so young, which makes you wonder if the reasons were tied to his personal life (Borg would later divorce and fight rumors of heavy drug use). He had an aborted comeback that we won't hold against him here, only because the comeback, like his career, was so limited.
2. Jim Brown. What was more shocking than Brown's retirement was how he retired. He called a reporter in 1966 from "The Dirty Dozen" movie set in London, dropped the info, then went back to shooting. No press conference. No tour. No teary good-byes. No nothing. It was typical Brown, who never followed the script (unless it was an actual script). He chose bad movies over a great football career, but then, who wouldn't if it meant a love scene with Raquel Welch? (To you younger viewers, she was the Angelina Jolie of her day.) Brown's final season was massive, much like the others: 1,544 yards and 17 TDs. He was the rushing champion again; only once in his nine years did Brown fail to get that title. And then, at 29, he left Cleveland for Hollywood. And "Ice Station Zebra." And "Black Gunn." And "Slaughter." And "…tick … tick… tick..." Yes, that was actually a movie title, complete with the lower-case.
1. Sandy Koufax. Yes, Mariano Rivera isn't having the best swan song of any major league pitcher. It's not even close, actually. Nobody in any sport compares to Koufax when it comes to leaving on top of your game. Koufax was on the moon when he retired at age 30 after the 1966 season with the Dodgers. His vitals: 27-9 record, 1.73 ERA, 317 strikeouts, Triple Crown, Cy Young, All-Star. What's really amazing is Koufax didn't hit his Hall of Fame stride until five years earlier. Can you imagine a player giving up the game today in similar circumstances? That year by Koufax would get $25 million a year, at least, nowadays. And good pitchers today are playing into their 40s. But much like Sanders and Brown, Koufax was wired a bit differently and he went out on his terms. Not anyone else's.