Earlier this week, Yankees manager Joe Girardi said he would ask Mariano Rivera to reconsider his retirement. This was a bit depressing. The canonization of Rivera has lasted all season. While the accolades are well deserved -- Rivera has been one of the all-time great relievers, if not the greatest on a career basis (after 1996 he wasn't used in a way in which he could compile single-season records that compared to the best in his field) and has been a model citizen as well -- but one would hope a manager would show a little more comprehension about a few things, among them:
1. That spending $10-$15 million of a $189-million payroll on one player who throws approximately 60 innings out of about 1460 is not wise, no matter how good those 60 innings are.
2. The way baseball stamps out 40-save relievers -- there have been 88 non-Rivera seasons of 40 or more saves in the 2000s alone -- it shouldn't be too hard to find those 60 innings elsewhere, and possibly a few more innings than that, even if the pitcher doesn't have the same career or postseason value as Rivera. Rafael Soriano demonstrated as much last season.
3. Rivera is 43 years old and although he seems as ageless as the hills, nothing lasts forever. Better he leaves a little something in the tank than to keep coming back until his cutter no longer cuts (something that seems to be happening with greater frequency this year) and instead of saying, "Please stay a little longer," you're crying out, "Mariano K. Rivera, will you please go now!"
As hard as it is to believe, there is an inevitable moment at which Rivera slows down and ticks to a stop. It might be that we're seeing hints of that this year, when his home-run rate has jumped up a bit and his strikeout rate has slipped slightly. Given his reliance on one very good trick, Rivera's act was always tenuous -- a little slippage could wipe him out completely. Obviously he's not there yet, not with 41 saves in 47 chances, but you can see it coming like a slow train pulling into the station.
No one who has watched and admired Rivera for all these years should want to watch him fail. Respect for the man and his accomplishments means letting to, even and perhaps especially if you're Joe Girardi.
Ever since Mariano Rivera headed into baseball's version of late-middle-age, I've been referring to him as baseball's version of Fred Astaire. Astaire has been dead for over 25 years, his years of stardom were over long before that, and the culture moves a lot faster than it used to, so maybe I ought to ground that in some context -- as much as it pains me, even some of those I consider my closest friends refuse to watch films made more than two minutes go. It's just an intermittent thing nowadays, with the odd Chicago, Sweeney Todd, Les Misérables or Into the Woods popping up, but Hollywood used to pump out quite a few films featuring singing and dancing. It was a form of escapism like today's summer blockbusters except the performers were their own special effects.
As with most Hollywood product, many of them were not good. Some of them have little islands of wonderfulness in them, which is why MGM's That's Entertainment clip-show films are so effective. You probably don't need to see all of 1953's Small Town Girl, but two minutes of Bobby Van's bouncy happiness? That's definitely worth it (my favorite touch: the dog joining in, then not quite knowing when to get off stage).
Astaire wasn't all that handsome, had a thin, reedy voice, and by the time he got going in the movies he was pushing 40. However, he was good with a comic line, the voice was expressive, and he was one of the most graceful humans ever, able to tell detailed stories with his body. It wasn't much easier for him to do this than it would be for anyone else, but he devoted countless hours to making it look that way. As Morris Dickstein wrote in Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, Astaire was able to create the illusion "of a man constantly outdoing himself without visible effort." As with Rivera, no one else was quite like him.
Of course, dancers get old. Astaire was always thinking he was past it and trying to retire. Yet, he kept coming back. Let's take this backwards: In 1968 he made his last musical film, Finian's Rainbow, directed by a young Francis Ford Coppola. He was 70 years old. He was the right age for the part, but the wrong age to dance. Still, he managed to do just a little, with one spotlight number that starts at about the 2:45 minute mark here:
Not bad for a senior citizen, right? The walking stick is a nice touch -- Astaire was famous for using a cane as a prop when he was forced to dance in evening clothes (something that became a trademark, even though he hated it). But compare it to the stick-work here in 1935's Top Hat, where he uses it not only as a dancing partner, but as a weapon with which he assassinates the chorus:
Damn it, we all get old. Again, compare his arthritic 1968 movements with this spotlight 1940 number with Eleanor Powell on Cole Porter’s "Begin the Beguine."
Imagine being one of the crew there for the filming of that number. It must have been something you'd like to remember, just like seeing Rivera close a game -- except that Astaire didn't do this anywhere near to 650 times, at least, not on film. He only danced on the ceiling once:
And there's also this long film-within-the-film from Follow the Fleet in which he talks himself and Ginger Rogers out of suicide -- and succumbing to the Great Depression -- with the help of Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance" that could only have the same meaning at that particular time and place:
I'd like to get Astaire back, to have more of this kind of thing, but I'm not into 105-year-old zombies. The '68 Astaire is about the limit for me. He danced on film a couple of other times after that, with Gene Kelly in the second of the aforementioned That's Entertainment films, but I actually have trouble watching him in the second-to-last full-length musical he made, Silk Stockings. It's not a bad picture, and he has some good songs in it, particularly Cole Porter's, "All of You," but the problem is the end of a number in which he and Janis Page make fun of the movies' desperate attempts to keep their audience in the face of television. At the end of the song he's breathing hard.
On Thursday night in New York, Rivera blew his sixth save of the season. He had help -- the two hits that made the tying run were sandwiched around a throwing error by catcher Austin Romine that moved pinch-runner Quintin Berry from first to third. We have seen before, going as far back as the 1997 ALDS against Cleveland or the 2001 World Series against the Diamondbacks, that the breaks can go against even the greatest pitcher sometimes. What makes Rivera a great pitcher, even beyond his stats and his records, is (to borrow from Vince Lombardi) that it isn't that he doesn't fall down, it's that he keeps getting up again.
Still, an excess of falling down would be too much to tolerate, just like watching Fred Astaire struggle to move around is too much. Hell, I'm pretty sure Winged Victory would be a better work of ark with both arms and the head attached. As time goes by, the breaks will go against him a little more because his power to influence them is waning. It seems to me that this season, and Rivera's career, will end just in time for us to miss most of that.
Maybe I'm just looking for cracks in Rivera's façade because I know they're inevitable, and my seeing them in every home run and blown save is an example of confirmation bias, I don't know. I just know that as baseball fans we've had enough, Joe Girardi, and it would be a greedy, selfish act of hubris to ask for more. When this season is over -- whether it ends with game 162 or a postseason run -- let him go. Let him go before you ruin him. Let him go before we see him weaken and falter. Let him go before he shares more than seemingly effortless grace with Fred Astaire.
Let him go before we see he's just like the rest of us.