The gut-wrenching sight of the greatest closer ever writhing in pain at the base of Kauffman Stadium's outfield wall will be one of the signature images of 2012. Mariano Rivera looked all too human when he blew out his right anterior cruciate ligament shagging flies during Yankees batting practice last Thursday. The injury ends the righthander's season and threatens to end one of the most amazing careers in history: 608 saves, the alltime record; the best inning-for-inning run prevention ever; an unfathomable 0.70 ERA in 96 postseason games; and five World Series rings.
A day after his injury a defiant Rivera insisted that he was not done. "I'm coming back," he told reporters. "Write it down in big letters. I'm not going out like this." It's not quite as simple as that, of course. Rivera, 42, faces a difficult rehabilitation with no guarantee that he'll be able to recover fully. He also may decide after most of a year away from the game that he'd simply rather be a husband, father of three and philanthropist than spend another year on the road.
Even if he guts through the rehab and wants to pitch, there's the issue of pay. A motivating factor for Rivera over his past few contracts has been a desire to fund his charitable work, both in the U.S. and Panama. (He's making $15 million in 2012, the final season of a two-year deal.) It's not clear whether he'd be willing to play for the kind of low-guarantee, high-incentive contract that would be typical for a 43-year-old coming off knee surgery. It's also unclear whether the Yankees, who retained Derek Jeter at an above-market price two seasons ago, would be willing to do the same for Rivera.
On the other hand, even after surgery, the closer would seem to have greater appeal than Jeter did after 2010, a year of decline. There has been no degradation in Rivera's performance: He had a 2.16 ERA in nine appearances this season, with eight strikeouts and no unintentional walks in 8 1/3 innings. Nevertheless, making an offer to Rivera—which the Yankees would have to do after the season to be assured compensation if he signed elsewhere—would carry the risk of an eight-figure contract for an asset still in the midst of an uncertain recovery.
No one wants to see a glorious career end this way. It's going to be awhile before we know whether Rivera's story has another chapter, and whether it will be set in the Bronx.