Here’s hoping this isn’t the end for Mariano Rivera

Mariano Rivera has 608 career saves, tops in MLB history. (AP)

Mariano Rivera has 608 career saves, tops in MLB history. (AP)

This is how it ends for Mariano Rivera?

The greatest closer of all time — by about 50 lengths, no other player in history has a firmer grasp at greatest ever at any position — blew out his ACL while shagging a fly ball during batting practice in Kansas City on Thursday.

Watching the replay on ESPN last night (and good luck finding it anywhere on the internet, MLB is absurdly protective of video, shrewd thinking for a business that is desperate for young viewers) what struck me was the inelegance of the moment. Rivera falling down in the outfield, writhing around in pain for a few minutes before being carried to a cart by Joe Girardi and Rafael Soriano. It just seemed absurd, and just not worthy of a pitcher like Mariano Rivera. It’s the guys like Matt Albers or Bobby Jenks that are supposed to have moments like that, right?

Rivera’s career numbers are staggering, if this is indeed the end he’ll finish as the all-time leader in saves, second in WHIP (Rivera and Pedro Martinez – another once in a lifetime guy – are the only pitchers in the top 10 in WHIP who were born in the 20th century) and 13th in ERA (granted he’s a closer, but the next active player on the all-time ERA list is Tim Lincecum, and he’s 178th). And as mind-boggling as his regular season numbers are, his legacy and reputation were secured in October.

Rivera is the greatest post-season performer in his history of baseball. He’s pitched in 141 playoff innings – about two seasons worth of closing – and has a 0.70 ERA and 0.76 WHIP. My favorite Rivera playoff stat? In 56 ALDS innings, he’s allowed two earned runs.

I suspect many around here have a different favorite playoff stat for Rivera, and it may involve the 2004 ALCS. Looking at Rivera’s baseball-reference page, it kind of surprised me to see how good his numbers were vs. the Sox in 2004. He pitched in five of the seven games, allowed a single earned run in seven innings, striking out six while walking two.

But we know about one of the walks, of course, and the steal and hit and comeback that followed, and all of that led to a moment that forever endeared Rivera to the folks in Boston. The standing ovation he received at Opening Day in 2005 would have pissed some guys off, but Rivera got it, embraced the whole thing. He laughed, tipped his cap, and soaked it all in. Sox fans always respected Rivera (obviously) before that, but that was relationship-altering moment.

I remember watching that and thinking that Rivera was finally entering the back nine of his career. The aura of dominance, of being untouchable was shattered. First Arizona in Game 7 of 2001, now his role in the Yankees blowing a 3-0 lead, maybe the end was near. He was, after all, 35 years old.

Well, over the next eight seasons Rivera had an ERA over 2.16 once and a WHIP above 1.00 once. He was the best closer in history already by 2005 and then got better. It’s true — Rivera was a better pitcher from 2005-2011 than he was from 1996-2004. And he did the impossible, something Mike Tyson, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan couldn’t do: he regained that aura of invincibility. It was as if 2004 never happened (he’s allowed two earned runs in 30 playoff innings since 2004), he was the same guy he was when he took the mound in Game 4 of the ALCS. Maybe that’s why he was smiling at Fenway that day in 2005.

And that’s why everything needs to be prefaced with an “if” when it comes to Rivera. Most 42-year-olds would be done after an ACL tear, but this is Rivera. Before this happened, he suggested this would the his final season, but I wonder if he’ll want to re-write this ending. Legends shouldn’t finish on the warning track during batting practice  in Kansas City.

But if this it, it ends a wonderfully, impossibly unique career. And from a Boston perspective, I’d put Rivera right next to Magic Johnson when ranking opposing players. Both were feared, hugely respected and ultimately as close to beloved as someone wearing a Lakers or Yankees uniform can be. I think people around here would be OK with A-Rod or Kobe blowing out a knee, might even enjoy it, but it’s different with Rivera.

And as crazy as it sounds, I bet most Red Sox fans hope they get to see Mariano Rivera on the mound at Fenway again. How many Yankees get two standing ovations at Fenway Park?