KANSAS CITY, Mo. – So, the flowers. They sat in the empty locker next to Mariano Rivera's. It was a standard bouquet, maybe $59.95, plus tax and delivery, with an array of colors and a cheap vase made of recycled something or another. In the New York Yankees' clubhouse less than 24 hours earlier, there had been tears, lamenting, disappointment, fear, loss. For consistency's sake, of course someone sent flowers.
The sullen looks on the Yankees' faces Thursday weren't because of worries that they'd lost Rivera for the 2012 season. It was because deep down they worried they'd lost Rivera for good, that the ACL in his right knee exploding during a routine fly ball-shagging exercise in batting practice would be some divine sign that he was done. Kansas City, Missouri? Maybe this was meant to be the final place he wore pinstripes.
Only we ought to have known better, because inasmuch as nobody sees a ballplayer's soul but a ballplayer himself, the ethos of Rivera gave clues to what he affirmed Friday afternoon.
"I'm coming back," Rivera said. "Put it down. Write it down in big letters. I ain't going down like this."
It's those six words – "I ain't going down like this" – that best reflect Rivera. Think about the job he has done better than anyone since the advent of the modern bullpen. When he fails to close games, he does so knowing he can wash away every letdown in his next outing. Rivera craves control, and neither a stupid warning track nor a hinky ligament would damn him to retirement.
[Jeff Passan: Injured Mariano Rivera vows to return to the mound]
As long as the surgery goes well and the rehab doesn't break him, Rivera should return for 2013. And because this wasn't an arm injury – the sort perhaps with which Rivera, or any normal 42-year-old pitcher for that matter, would've been content going down – it's reasonable to think he'll be every bit the pitcher he's been for nearly two decades now.
Yes, it's his push leg rather than his land leg. And, yes, his ligaments no longer are as pliable as they once were and his body can't heal like that of the ballplayers who are in the majors and half his age. Rivera is, as he referred to himself Friday, "the old goat."
For the next few months, he'll have plenty of time to do little but chew on a can and work his knee back into shape. The possibility of Rivera returning from an in-season ACL tear like Yovani Gallardo did in 2008 is somewhere between no chance and fuhgeddaboutit.
"Miracles happen, guys," Rivera said, and he considers himself something of one, the poor kid from a country with next to no baseball legacy who mid-career found perhaps the greatest pitch of all time, a cut fastball that come 2013 will snap bats with more eyeballs on it than ever.
And if anything, that's the danger in his returning: not just opening the possibility of failure in a career with next to none but doing so coming off an injury which paved an understandable path to whatever his next career may be. The outpour of sadness and anger resonated after Rivera's ACL tear because it seemed so damn unfair. If his elbow ligament snaps, sure. If his shoulder gives, yeah. But his knee? In BP? Off a fly ball from a journeyman on his very first day with the Yankees?
"It's just a strange deal," said Jayson Nix, who, perhaps more than anyone, was spared by Rivera's decision to return. Otherwise, he was going to be the guy who hit the warning-track fly ball that slew Mo.
"I'm just glad he's coming back," Nix said, and the sentiment permeated the Yankees' clubhouse, the opposite of the evening before, when it teemed with all the charm of a morgue. Even if Rivera would be limping around for a while, and even if the Yankees were pressed a year early into seeing whether David Robertson could close effectively, and even if it struck a blow at their chase for a 28th championship, Rivera's vow to fight provided enough closure to worry about other things, like what the hell happened to their starting rotation and how they're three games back of – gulp – Baltimore.
More than anything, the idea of Rivera gives the Yankees comfort. He proved fallible annually; they still considered him anything but. He blew a few saves a year; the only one anybody remembers is Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. He's gone for the rest of this year; he's back in 11 months, so that's OK. Rivera is the Yankees' binky. As long as they know where he is, they can subsist.
"Everything's going to be fixed," Rivera said. "Whatever it is, it's going to be fixed."
He wasn't going down, not like this. We all should've known better. Even the person who sent the flowers.
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