Rivera: 'I'm coming back'
It can’t end this way. It really can’t.
This is about the greatest closer the game of baseball has ever seen or will ever see ending the career of a lifetime on his terms. And if there’s anyone up for the challenge, who has the heart and guts to accept the mission of coming back from a torn ACL and complete it, it’s Mariano Rivera.
Take it from the man himself, who hours after suffering the injury made up his mind in the hotel room.
"I'm coming back," Rivera told reporters Friday in Kansas City. "Write it down in big letters. I'm not going out like this. Miracles happen. I love to play the game. To me, going out like this isn't the right way."
More appropriate words could not be spoken, because Rivera is a miracle. This is about Rivera the athlete, placid in demeanor but a fire-breathing dragon on the mound. If Pat Riley were to re-write The Winner Within, Rivera would be one of the chapters. You read Rivera’s resume of five World Series rings, a 0.70 postseason ERA and 608 career saves. You watched Rivera very closely to measure his intangibles, and the psychological lift and damage he imposes on his team and opponents, respectively.
The conclusion is obvious: Rivera owns an indomitable will to win. His belief system has helped him smash records and is strong enough to break down the walls of Jericho. Rivera is hurt. He’s not dead. He’s down. He’s not out. Despite the shock of losing their most indispensable player, the Yankees’ season is far from over.
And because Rivera is Rivera, do not bet on his career being over either.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of 1,000, you didn’t bet against Rivera protecting a Yankees lead in the ninth inning. A comeback from a torn ACL isn’t 1,000 percent guaranteed, but it’s fair to predict that Rivera’s incredible run won’t end prone and in pain on the warning track of Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City.
Rivera has fought back before – and has won. He had surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow in 1990, two years after signing with the Yankees. Joe Torre took a leap of faith when he moved Rivera, who didn’t cut it as a starting pitcher, to the bullpen to set up John Wetteland in 1996. All Rivera did was tag-team with Wetteland to give the Yankees a 70-3 record when leading after six innings. The next season he was named the closer and everything after that is logged in the history books. Some records need to be written in stone because nobody’s breaking what Rivera has accomplished.
On this day, and for the rest of 2012, Rivera will face the ultimate challenge, fighting back like a champion from an injury former teammate and current manager Joe Girardi described as “about as bad as it gets.” It’s funny that this day, May the 4th, is considered a holiday by Star Wars fans to honor the saga. In “The Empire Strikes Back,” Han Solo navigated through an asteroid field when C3P0 told him the possibility of successful navigation is “approximately 3,720 to 1.”
Some athletes, like Bernard King, were never the same after tearing an ACL. Others, notably Tom Brady, made it back to elite performance. A young NBA superstar named Derrick Rose and impressive Knicks rookie Iman Shumpert (both in their early 20s) are beginning their respective journeys. In Mixed Martial Arts a torn ACL felled UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, considered one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world. St. Pierre, 30, had surgery last December and faced a rehab of 10 months. A few weeks later, he started his rehab and was able to walk, and is projected to defend his title in November.
Solo’s response was, “Never tell me the odds.” The same applies to Rivera. Can his 42-year-old body recover from such a devastating injury and painful rehab? Don’t bother telling him the odds, because Rivera has to try. Yeah, he’ll be 43 by next spring. And when if he returns there will be questions about his health and whether he can match the standards he’s set.
But count on this: Rivera is up for the challenge.
“It's not an easy situation but we've been through this before, and we're being tested one more time,” Rivera said. “There's reasons why it happens. You have to take it the way it is and fight, fight through it. Now we have to just fight.”
Rivera will fight. He will rise out bed, the gate will open and he will enter his new playing field for the next few months, determined to lock down another save.
Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC