The best part of Mariano Rivera's exit last night, his final game at Yankee Stadium, was what we didn't see. A man who has always felt so comfortable in the spotlight -- not a seeker of it, but not one who shies away -- finally needed a place to hide. He burrowed his head into Andy Pettitte's shoulder, not wanting the world to see just what this was doing to him... that's the part that got me. There is something about the taciturn breaking down, at last, at the very end.
It was an indelible baseball moment, one that will be shown on Yankee Stadium highlights for years, particularly when Yankees fans try to forget they're watching Vernon Wells play left field. Unless we get a historic October moment, like a Game 6 from 1986 or 2011, it'll be the lasting image of this whole baseball season, and it should be: This is Mariano Rivera, the one Yankee everybody likes, the one player everyone likes. (If you haven't read it, you can get a rare glimpse into the real Mariano from this New York magazine cover story earlier this year.) It was impossible not to be moved.
Ken Rosenthal and Joe Maddon both chimed in on Twitter that the only comparable to last night was when Cal Ripken, Jr. broke Lou Gehrig's record, and while I'm suspicious of the historical revisionism -- no matter what has happened since then, the night Mark McGwire passed Roger Maris was even more emotional of a night, even if we've all now collectively decided to pretend we didn't feel that way -- it's tough to argue that Ripken and Rivera don't have tons of similarities. They are both superstars who Did It The Right Way, all with the same team, whose exit from baseball seems destined to represent the End Of An Era. Losing Mariano and Ripken are losses of constancy, of stability, of reliability. We react so strongly because we understand precisely what we are losing.
This got me to thinking: Are we going to see this again? After all, one of the reasons the sendoffs for Ripken and Rivera meant so much is because they were decades in the making. Thus, it stands to reason that the next retirements that will affect as much will involve people in the midst of the careers right now. Who are the candidates? Who are the next Ripkens and Riveras?
To figure this out, we're going to need to set some parameters.
The player must play his entire career with the same team. This shouldn't be that important, but it is. When someone players with the same team forever, it adds more to that whole Like The Old Days illusion.
The player must have won a championship. Otherwise, the narrative is less about the player himself and more about how they never quite won the big one (Dan Marino being the most obvious example).
The player must be universally popular and have no major scandals. Ben Roethlisberger could make this list were it not for, uh, those multiple times being accused of sexual assault. (In case you had forgotten.) Ryan Braun had a chance until the entire world started hating him.
Now, this isn't a guarantee that the player's retirement will have the effect of Ripken's or Rivera's. (After all, if we'd have done this list 10 years ago, Todd Helton would be on this list, and all he got was a horse.) Many things can go wrong: The player can leave town (Albert Pujols), have injuries derail his career (Grady Sizemore) or just regress to the point that it's silly to even consider him (Andruw Jones). This is just a look at who might reach that level. We're limiting ourselves to the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball, just because I don't feel qualified to make any NHL decisions. (We can ask Joe DeLessio, or you can put them in the comments.)
Anyway, let's guess.
Tom Brady, New England Patriots. A no-brainer here, barring another paternity scandal or something. Actually, it'd probably require about nine.
Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints. Beloved superstar who is setting records every season, in addition to being socially conscious and politically active. There is also the small matter of that championship. I'm making a small exception here for Brees, considering he began his career with the San Diego Chargers, because no one remembers he ever did that. (Call it The Ozzie Smith Exemption.)
Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers. Longevity -- his connection to an entirely different era of the NBA -- plus the championships and scoring records along with his terrifying inner will should help push back past his controversial history. Also: It's the Lakers.
Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs. Honestly, they might bury him at the Alamo.
Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder. The fans worship the ground he walks on, but he'll need to win a title, and he'll need to never leave. Not sure which one of those is more likely.
Derek Jeter, New York Yankees. This is the most obvious one on the list. The only question here is whether his big moment will come next year, or some other year down the line. You could argue this will be a bigger deal than Rivera's last night was, rightly or no.
Eli Manning, New York Giants. This one is strangely iffy, considering the guy has won two Super Bowls. He's just so boom or bust that he almost might need another one.
Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates. Obviously, he'll need to win a championship at some point, but if that ever happens, he'll be the person who represents the transition from the dark ages to the dawn.
Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals. Cardinals fans love their catchers, and Yadi's the best of all of them. Will also win bonus points in the wake of Pujols, for being the one who stuck around.
David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox. Flies in the face of two of the above eliminating rules -- he played for the Twins and he has been tied to PED use -- but it's possible the "this is our f-king city" moment made all that disappear.
Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings. The way the NFL is going, it seems likely he'll be one the last running backs ever to be thought of in this way.
Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants. A little risky, considering he's only four years into his career and he's a catcher, but you couldn't possibly get off to a better start.
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers. He might need another Super Bowl win to separate him from Brett Favre.
Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls. Don't underestimate the hometown factor: Rose is a native son, and that'll be remembered far longer than him needing more time to rest his knee.
Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat. LeBron drowns him out a little, but as long as they're teammates, he'll always have one more title.
Whom am I forgetting? Who shouldn't be on here? Also, just so you can get all weepy one more time: