(No caption necessary. Courtesy of EPA)
Since the mid-90s, when the last Yankee dynasty rose to power in the American League, there has been one constant in the Yankee roster that perfectly captures and represents the "Yankee Way." Even more than Derek Jeter, the official captain and face of the franchise, this one man is the symbol of what it means to be a Yankee. I'm talking, of course, about the great Mariano Rivera, the single greatest athlete at doing one particular thing in the history of professional sports. As Mo has continued to stay on the top of the mountain at an age when most guys are getting jobs as ESPN analysts, the joke over the last couple seasons has been that he's ageless, not human, and that he could pitch forever, but all indications point to 2012 being Mo's final season as an active player and that is one storyline that nobody should forget about this season.
He hasn't come right out and said it, but comments he made upon his arrival at Spring Training certainly sounded like they were leaning towards Mo deciding to hang them up. Then there's the fact that Mo showed up to Spring Training early, at least by his standards. He arrived the day after pitchers and catchers officially had to report and has been ahead of his typical ST schedule ever since. He started throwing sides earlier, he started throwing BP earlier, he got into a game earlier. It's almost as if Mo knows in his heart that this is the last time he's going to experience a spring camp with his teammates and friends and so he wanted to make sure he gave himself every opportunity to experience the whole thing.
I've written at length about how great a sports figure Mo is on multiple occasions. It's an easy topic to write about because of what he's done, how he does it, and the type of player and person he is. And I call him a sports figure because to call him a pitcher or a closer or an athlete just doesn't seem to do him justice. Mariano Rivera is everything a professional athlete should strive to be. He's one of the few professional athletes that you can call a role model and point to kid and say, "you should want to be like him." And with this season being the last chance for people to watch him and appreciate everything that makes him great, we'll all be reminded of all his wonderful qualities each and every time he takes the mound.
On that mound, Mo is still an absolute artist at age 42. It boggles the mind how efficient, consistent, and deadly he has been for such a long time with that cutter. With hardly any effort, it seems, he fires that pitch again and again and again and paints the corners, inside or out, and does it with the same calm, emotionless look on his face. There's something almost cold-blooded about Mo's approach on the mound. He knows what he's throwing, the hitter knows what he's throwing, and he still throws it. He'll get a hitter to chase one just off the outside corner enough to only be able to foul it off for strike two and then come back inside and freeze the hitter with another one at the knees. Say what you want about the sabermetric value of relief pitchers, but there's no denying that Mo is a weapon out in that bullpen. He's a stone cold assassin and if he is truly putting away his sniper rifle and leaving the life after this season, he looks poised to go out on top. So far this spring in his four appearances, his line is:
4 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 3 K
It doesn't get more Mo-like than that.
I don't know if I'm going to make it to a Yankee game this year. I highly doubt I will. But if you have the opportunity to go, make damn sure you do, if for nothing more than the chance to see Mariano Rivera pitch in person for one last time. He's one of the few athletes who is must-see. He's an icon, for baseball and for the Yankees. I associate "Enter Sandman" more with Mariano Rivera than I do with Metallica. Part of me believes that somewhere deep down inside himself, Andy Pettitte decided he wanted to come back this season to be able to call himself Mo's teammate during Mo's final season. They started together, it's only right that they finish it together. Part of me also wants to believe that Mo is going to stick around after this year, but I'm already resigning myself to the idea that he won't. Baseball is a team sport, but if the 2012 Yankee season belongs to anybody, it belongs to Mo. One more chance for him to call himself a champion, one more chance to rewrite the record books, and one more opportunity for him to remind everybody that he's the greatest. It's not something that can be tracked or analyzed as the season progresses, but this storyline is probably the most important for 2012.