Yesterday, in Kansas City, the greatest baseball reliever of all time — Mariano Rivera — ended his season, and likely his career, by blowing out his knee trying to shag a routine fly ball during batting practice.  His ACL is torn and his meniscus is damaged.

At 42 — and threatening this year to finally call it quits at the age that matches his soon-to-be-forever-retired uniform number — it is hard to imagine Mariano making a future final pitching appearance in a Yankees uniform simply because the ravages of tides and the inequities of time only weakens us every year.  None of us meeting middle age ever get any stronger, or more durable, as we begin that slow and lonesome decline down the hill in our return to the grave.

If this is really it, and that sickening fall at the Kansas City warning track is the final image of Rivera in uniform, take a close look at the words on the billboard he tumbles into. It is a Budweiser ad, but for some reason the tagline says, “Walk Off a Hero.”

Rivera could not walk off the field in Kansas City. But as a baseball hero, he will always walk tall. He does not need to come back to prove it.

Mariano did not leave the game as any of us hoped.  We wanted to watch him walking off the pitcher’s mound and into the mist with fist raised in final victory.  We yearned for that unifying, final, moment of triumph to put a proper end to a magnificent career.

If this is the end for Mariano Rivera — and we are left with a closing image of a great man on the ground, golden hands clutching for help to assuage the pain of the reality that it all ends there writhing in the dirt instead of walking away from it — then we owe Mariano a moment of thanks in reminding us that no man ever walks above the earth out returning to it in dust and ashes.


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