The Yankees lost to the Royals in Kansas City on Thursday night, falling 4-3 to a team that hadn’t previously won a single game at home. Young lefty Danny Duffy was in control for much of the night, dominating most Yankee hitters with his 98 MPH fastball and an assortment of curves, sliders, and changeups. (It should be noted, however, that Derek Jeter picked up four more hits, raising his average to .404 overall and a ridiculous .576 against lefties.)
Jeter’s fourth hit was a single to lead off the ninth inning, and when Curtis Granderson followed with a walk to put runners at first and second with no one out and the 3-4-5 hitters due, Kansas City’s one-run lead seemed about to melt. But Mark Teixeira promptly grounded into a 4-6-3 double play, leaving the game to Alex Rodríguez. A-Rod swung through Jonathan Broxton’s first pitch for strike one, then took a pitch that was low and inside and should’ve evened the count at 1-1. Home plate umpire Vic Carapazza saw it as a strike, and suddenly A-Rod was in an oh-two hole. He reacted about as strongly as you’ll ever see a batter react after strike two, taking a step or two towards the umpire with both arms outstretched wide in disbelief. A player of lesser stature would surely have been tossed, but to Carapazza’s credit, he let Alex have his say, perhaps because he knew he had missed the call.
Rodríguez stepped back in the box and dug deep, fouling off three straight pitches before taking three balls to work the count full. He took a mighty swing at the ninth pitch of the at bat, but only managed to dribble it weakly down the third base line. Third baseman Mike Moustakas rushed in, plucked the ball from the grass with his bare hand, and fired to first to get A-Rod by half a step and end the game.
By now, though, you know that none of that matters. While shagging fly balls in the outfield during batting practice before the game, Mariano Rivera twisted his knee and fell to the ground in obvious pain. Waiting his turn in the cage almost four hundred feet away, A-Rod spoke for Yankee fans everywhere when he said, “Oh, my god! Oh, my god! He’s hurt!” Manager Joe Girardi raced to where Mariano lay on the warning track, and moments later he and bullpen coach Mike Harkey were hoisting the greatest closer of all time — and by at least one measure, the greatest pitcher of all time — onto a cart that would drive him off into the sunset, perhaps forever.
The true extent of Rivera’s injury wouldn’t be revealed until after the game, but the specter of disaster loomed over the entire evening. At one point Ken Singleton reported that it was simply a twisted knee and said something about how Girardi would have to do without him for a few days. Anyone who had seen the play (you can watch it here) knew it was much worse.
Within minutes after the final out, Rivera himself confirmed the worst. He had torn his ACL and his meniscus. The exact course of action won’t be known until Rivera flies back to New York and meets with team doctors, but one thing is for sure: he won’t pitch again in 2012, and since this season had long been rumored to be his last, there’s no guarantee that he’ll want to return for 2013, nor is it clear that he’ll even be able to pitch next year. When asked if he thought he would pitch again, an emotional Rivera gave a sobering answer: “At this point, I don’t know. At this point, I don’t know. We have to face this first.”
And now I have to face it. Throughout the game as we were all wondering what the news would be, I didn’t once consider how Rivera’s loss might affect the team. I didn’t wonder who the new closer would be, and I didn’t worry about the team’s playoff chances. All I could think about was whether or not I would ever see Rivera pitch again.
What I’m about to say wouldn’t make sense to people who aren’t sports fans, but I’m guessing that anyone who reads this will understand. Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada have been fixtures in my life for so long that they’ve transcended sport and become more than just baseball players. They have been the Mt. Rushmore of these Yankees, the faces of the franchise.
With Rivera specifically, it won’t just be during the final three outs of the ninth inning that I’ll miss him. I’ll miss those moments when the camera catches him tutoring a young reliever and modeling the grip of his cutter, a magician opening his bag of tricks. I’ll miss the naps he’d sometimes take in the middle innings. I’ll miss his measured reactions to wins, his stoic confidence in defeat. Without question, I’ll miss the man more than the player.
Sometimes, it’s not about baseball.
[Photo Credit: AP Photo/YES Network]