When most relievers decide their baseball career is over, a team simply moves on to the next best guy they can find. Relievers are fungible and volatile, so the drop off isn't supposed to be significant to one from another. That has never been the case with Mariano Rivera. If relievers are fungible, he has been the exception to the rule. Even if the next guy to step into the closer role for the Yankees is very, very good, he won't come with the comfort that seeing number 42 jog out of the bullpen always provided. You'll have to hold your breath; you'll have to shift around in your seat. You'll have to experience the last frame of close games the way other fans have had to while we were all getting spoiled by the greatest there ever was.
It's beginning to sink in: this is Mariano Rivera's last year as a Yankee, and when 2014 rolls around, someone new will have to fill a position that no mortal reliever is capable of truly filling. That unenviable job will likely fall on David Robertson's shoulders barring a catastrophic injury or unexpected trade. We got a taste of life without Rivera in 2012, but it was almost a foregone conclusion that his absence was temporary. Mariano would be back and we'd all be able to return to our regularly scheduled ninth inning peace of mind. Next year, that feeling won't be a luxury we have. Rivera won't be returning. We have to deal with the bumps that will undoubtedly come without looking forward to when he returns to make everything less stressful. If people were uneasy with Robertson faltering before when they felt certain Rivera would return, just wait until he falters without that safety net in place. Rafael Soriano was more effective over a longer period of time in that spot, but he was still no Mo. His ninth innings often felt like a heart attack waiting to happen. Even when things were going ok, it just felt like he was on the verge of blowing the game. It never felt like that with Rivera, and it drove home the point of how difficult it is to do what Mo had always done seemingly effortlessly.
David Robertson will probably be a fine closer. He's a valuable reliever who works out of tough jams fairly well. If Robertson can't succeed for whatever reason, maybe it'll be Mark Montgomery's turn to try. Maybe David Aardsma will get another shot to close. Maybe the Yankees will sign a free agent closer like Brian Wilson or Jose Valverde and we'll have to get used to the antics that come with them instead of the quiet handshakes with the catcher that were always the sign of another day at the office for Rivera. These are a lot of maybes for a team that has been able to take the ninth inning for granted, and that's scary to think about. When an unquestioned Hall of Fame player leaves, the future is always uncertain and uneasy. Better get used to it, I guess -- we'll have to do this all again when Derek Jeter calls it quits, knowing that a replacement is really not realistic. A person will physically replace both of them on the field, but really replacing them? Not happening.
I cannot clearly remember a time when Mariano Rivera was not the Yankees' closer, and because of that, it feels like a little bit of my childhood was ripped away with the news that this would be his final season. I'm not usually sentimental about baseball, but seeing a career like that draw to a close seems like it might almost be worth getting sentimental about. It felt like Rivera would pitch forever, and I'm still not sure he couldn't, but I consider myself lucky to have witnessed as much of his brillance as possible. Today is a little sad and the transition next year will be kind of scary, but this year will be about appreciating the fact that we got to experience something that made all these feelings about a guy who was good at playing a game worth feeling.