I'm sure we each had a story written for how it would happen-
The great man would throw one last strike as the stands unleash a wave of camera flashes and cheers. It would come at the end of a long season of cheers. At stadium after stadium, as he is called to the mound for the last time in that city, fans- other team's fans- might stand and offer the polite applause given to a bitter, but not hated, rival. There might even be ticker tape involved, in the finale.
Isn't baseball cruel?
Baseball does this to me in some way every season: changes something I considered immutable, dashes my daydreams.
The human body is a magnificent thing. The grace necessary to turn a double play, to catch a curveball on the fat of the bat and rifle it into the opposite corner, to slide into home around the catcher's tag when just the tips of the fingers graze the plate- that grace is the old fashioned kind of grace, the manifestation of the divine among us.
But we have poured our devotion into human beings, and bodies break. One terrible torque of knee, and ligaments give.
I see the irony of Rivera's injury during batting practice. For years we've regaled each other with stories of Rivera as the supreme athlete, and we've pointed to his flawless outfield performances as proof. Somewhere within Buster Olney's Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty a player says he's sure Rivera would have reached the majors as a center fielder if he hadn't been the greatest closer of all time.
if he hadn't been. We can use the past tense now, can't we?
This is where baseball is cruelest: the story doesn't ever end. We add Rivera to a collection of stories. To Cobb and Ruth and DiMaggio and Musial and Williams and Mantle and Aaron and Rose and Schmidt and Griffey and, now, Rivera. Because we are fans and because this is baseball, we never get to forget; we never get to let the moment's hype obliterate our view of the past.
But this morning, someone new is learning to fall in love with baseball, like we all did. And that means that this morning we are all a little older, because now we are the ones who must say, "If you had only seen the great Rivera."