For most of us, death will not announce itself with a blare of trumpets or a roar of cannons. It will come silently, one the soft paws of a cat. It will insinuate itself, rubbing against our ankle in the midst of an ordinary moment. An uneventful dinner. A drive home from work. A sofa pushed across a floor. A slight bend to retrieve a morning newspaper tossed into a bush. And then, a faint cry, an exhale of breath, a muffled slump.
Pat Jordan, “A Ridiculous Will”
All that remained in Mariano Rivera’s incomparable career as the finest short-inning closer in baseball history was an ending. Last night Rivera fell to the ground on the warning track in Kansas City before the game. He shagged fly balls, something he’s done his entire career–teammates and reporters have always said he’d be a smooth outfielder. He sprinted after a ball and jumped as he reached the warning track. Then he was on his back, his mouth open in pain.
But that isn’t the image that replayed in my mind this morning. What I remember most is watching Rivera being driven off the field in a cart and the smile on his face. Maybe he was embarrassed or maybe he wanted to reassure his teammates that he was okay. Or perhaps Rivera, a spiritual man who has always attributed the events in his career– from his accidental discovery on the cut fastball to losing the seventh game of the World Series–to an act of God believed this was just meant to be and who was he to question it? As if he’d been secretly waiting and now he had an answer.
Things fall apart. For everyone.
The loss for Yankee fans, and the team, isn’t just about Rivera’s production. It is emotional and aesthetic. Even looking at Rivera’s statistics, a parade of type-o’s, has an aesthetic beauty to it. When we talk about Rivera’s pitching motion, his mulish imperturbability, his athletic grace under pressure, we think of artists not ball players: Buster Keaton, Fred Astaire, Al Hirschfeld. His career was a reminded that athletic excellence is closer to art than science.
His career might be over. If so, the last out Rivera recorded was a ground ball to Derek Jeter which was turned into a 6-4-3 double play to end the game against the Orioles on Monday night. Rivera may decide to rehab his knee and pitch again. Nobody would blame him if he walked away. He has nothing left to prove. It is our loss. The beauty part of Rivera’s greatness is that he made us appreciate every performance, every pitch, in a way that kept us in the moment, aware that what we were watching was special.
And so I’ll remember the smile on his face as he was carted off the field. It was a smile of acceptance. And it made me feel better the way he always does. That peaceful, easy feeling. Knowing that he could be seriously hurt, that his season or his career could be over, only reinforced my gratitude. He’s given me more pleasure than any other athlete. For that, I can only give thanks.