The articles that will be far more interesting in the coming days—and, indeed, that have been fascinating gauges of reaction in just the last 24 hours—are those that discuss Rivera's shocking and sudden injury and attempt to come to terms with it. The way the media is reporting the story, and the way New Yorkers seem to be reacting to it, provide a window into what this misfortune means to our baseball-loving nation.
It's clear from media and public reaction that this is no ordinary injury. Yet why shouldn't it be? As already discussed, a few shrill voices notwithstanding, it doesn't ruin anyone's playoff chances (certainly no more than Ryan Madson did). It does have the added gloom of being career-threatening, with Rivera hinting in spring training that 2012 may be his final season, but Rivera has already indicated that he will fight his way back to the mound. Moreover, older players (and even some younger ones) suffer major injuries with the potential to derail their careers every year—Jamie Moyer's 2011 Tommy John surgery, to take one example. It's rarely treated as the end of the world.
The reason Mo's injury strikes so deep into our collective psyche is what it represents: the sudden halting of something that had been inevitable. Mariano Rivera was—is—the best closer in baseball history. He always took the ball (60+ appearances in 15 of the last 16 years), and he always got outs when he took the ball (ERAs under 2 in eight of the last nine years). He threw only one pitch (a cutter), so everyone knew what was coming—but they also always knew the result (an out). He was, as they say, automatic. In his 18 seasons of Major League Baseball, he was the one constant that never changed.
Then, yesterday, with one sudden play, everything changed. He was no longer a given out of the Yankees bullpen, and he was no longer the sun around which all the rest of baseball revolved. He became like every other pitcher who has suffered an injury—i.e., mortal. In other words, the one sure thing that we baseball fans thought we could always count on has been taken away. Mo was around every day for 15 years; now, just like that, he's gone from the roster. It's a rude awakening that there is no such thing as a sure thing.
And when we realize that about baseball, we realize that about life. Nothing, good or bad, personal or professional, lasts forever. We assume we can count on certain things—our families, our friends, our jobs—but they can always vanish at a moment's notice. Yesterday's reminder of that from the sports world—someplace we normally go to escape—was jarring.
Many have compared the outpouring of grief and despair over Rivera's injury to news of a death. This fits with the nerve that I believe Rivera's injury has struck. While the real-life seriousness is very different, this is the baseball version of a hale and hearty grandfather passing away in a car accident. Misfortune can strike from anywhere, and it can strike even the healthiest and most dependable among us.
Going even further with the "life can go wrong in an instant" theme seemed to be David Waldstein's New York Times article that broke the news to the Gray Lady's readership:
"If there has been one constant with the Yankees during the most recent edition of their dynasty, it has been the unparalleled success and durability of their closer, Mariano Rivera.
"Since 1997, when he took over as the closer for the team, he has provided stability and reassurance as he anchored the Yankees’ pitching staff and secured the final out in hundreds of games from April until the end of October.
"But that legendary calm was shattered Thursday afternoon as Rivera lay on the warning track at Kauffman Stadium after sustaining a devastating knee injury that could signal the end of his remarkable career."
To be clear, I am not even remotely comparing the two, but Waldstein's diction and imagery remind the reader of some common descriptions of September 11—the ultimate day of shock and sadness. It is significant that at least one writer—and at least some of us everyfolk—dipped into that particular pocket of emotion while trying to describe how it felt to have everything we knew about Mariano Rivera turned on its head in six hours.
The reaction of Rivera's fellow Yankees also recalls that of witnessing a major disaster, and the stages of grief that follow. The facial expressions of Alex Rodríguez and Joe Girardi, among others, to seeing Rivera tear his ACL in real time seemed to suggest that they realized they were witnessing something significant, historic, and urgent. After the game, which the Yankees lost 4–3 to the Royals (Rivera injured himself in batting practice), Yahoo!'s Jeff Passan described the mood of the Yankees clubhouse as deeply morose.
Considering that fact, then, maybe losing Rivera will have a deeper impact on the Yankees than I at first assumed—not by making them a worse baseball team, but by affecting them psychologically in the ways described here. Indeed, Girardi is staring down the barrel of his biggest challenge to date as the New York manager: cutting through the depressing pall this will cast on his clubhouse. In this sense, it is again much like any team that suffers the death of one of its players.
Except, in this case, no one has died; no disaster has occurred. The Rivera injury must be understood for what it is. That includes recognizing that it stimulates the same nerve centers as a major tragedy would, but also that, as a practical matter, it is of the sort we process every day in our capacity as fans. Hopefully, the Yankees too can recognize the difference between psychology and reality.