Mariano Rivera takes aim at history

TAMPA, Fla. -- He jogged to the mound at 9:35 on a sun-splashed spring training morning, a water bottle clutched in his right hand. No. 99 in your program, Rob Segedin, waited at home plate.

For the great Mariano Rivera, this was the beginning of his march toward history.

Right. More history.

You wouldn’t think he would have much more left to do, much more left to prove, much more stuff he could accomplish to fill up anybody’s history book, would you?

He has already saved more games, saved more postseason games and turned more bats into kindling than any relief pitcher who ever lived. But this is different. He is 43 years old, the same age as Steffi Graf, Brett Favre and Jeff Cirillo. They’re all done playing. Mariano? Ehhhh, not so much.

Nearly 10 months after blowing out his right ACL on a warning track in Kansas City, Mo., he occupied his Friday morning by launching 20 of his fabled cutters past Segedin and Kyle Roller (No. 98 in your program) on a gleaming diamond in Tampa.

It was the first time this man had delivered a pitch to a living, breathing hitter since April 30, when Nick Markakis was cooperative enough to bounce into a game-ending double play at Yankee Stadium to finish off career save No. 608. So this was a big day. For him, and for that team that’s enjoyed riding on his surfboard all these years.

So when this little session of live BP was through, and Rivera’s golden right arm was still attached to his shoulder, life in the Yankees cosmos was finally back to -- to use Joe Girardi’s word of the day -- “normal.”

But that’s where we need to step in and make a point: This isn’t normal.

There’s nothing normal about it. Nothing. What exactly is normal about a 43-year-old man, working on a blown-out knee, gearing up for another season of greatness?

Unless that man is Mariano Rivera, that is.

“I think, as everyone else gets older, he gets younger,” said his onetime heir apparent Joba Chamberlain. “I don’t know how he does it. I need to find his fountain of youth. Wherever it’s at, he needs to share the wealth.”

But the truth is that no one else has ever done it like The Great Mariano has. And it’s hard to believe anyone ever will. There is no map to his fountain that will be available to the rest of us anytime soon. Sorry about that.

If anyone else could possibly learn to throw That Pitch even remotely close to the way he’s thrown it, someone would have learned it by now and done it by now. Right?

But apparently, there is nothing about this man that is humanly possible for the rest of the species to duplicate. So why would it ever occur to anyone who has ever been around him that he wouldn't come back, at 43, and pick right up where he left off?

On this team, in this clubhouse, that’s actually looked at as a preposterous thought.

“He’s just one of those ageless guys,” said another bullpen amigo, David Phelps.

But it’s time for us to make another point we should all remind ourselves of: No one is ageless. No one. Not even Cher.

Not even the great Mariano Rivera.

This is where the history part of this saga -- his saga -- comes in. I'd like you to make a list of all the 43-year-olds in baseball history who have achieved any level of greatness. On any team. In any season. At any position. It won’t take long, because we can sum up pretty much all of them with just two entries: 1) Knuckleballers. 2) Nolan Ryan.

No reason even to discuss the feats of 43-year-old hitters, because there hasn’t been a single position player that old (or older) who was worth even 2.0 Wins Above Replacement. (Carlton Fisk’s 1.7 WAR in 1991 tops the chart.)

And when we start talking about the storied achievements of 43-year-old relievers, it’s safe to say that won’t take much time either. Hoyt Wilhelm knuckleballed his way to 14 saves in 1969. But other than him, since the invention of the modern save rule, you know what the record is for most saves in a season by a non-knuckleballer this old? How about six -- by Don McMahon for the 1973 Giants.

Six saves? That’s basically just another week in the life of Mariano Rivera.

So if Rivera simply goes out there and plays himself in this major motion picture this season, he is bound for a place that no relief pitcher in history has ever gone. Again.

But suppose he doesn’t? Sorry. Had to ask. Suppose he follows the path that pretty much every other earthling his age has followed in the history of his sport? Suppose he discovers that he too is human. Maybe his 43-year-old hamstrings start popping, his 43-year-old elbow starts throbbing, or his 43-year-old bones start aching.

Then what? That’s not a development anyone around this $210 million baseball team he plays for prefers to contemplate. I can assure you of that.

I posed that question to the manager on Friday. And at first, Girardi started conjecturing about moving David Robertson from the eighth inning to the ninth or doing it by committee. But finally, he said: “I try to not even think about that.”

And that’s the remarkable part of this remarkable story: No one in a Yankees uniform can even fathom the idea that this man could be anything less than great. Even at age 43. On a reconstructed knee.

Including Mariano Rivera himself. He sat in the dugout Friday, beads of sweat trickling down his face. And never once, for one moment, did he sound like a man with a doubt in the world about what lies ahead for him.

You’d think, for instance, that he might be concerned that he couldn’t command his cutter again, with a hitter in the box, after all these months off? Yeah, right.

“That’s one thing, thank God, I never worry about -- command,” he said. “I know if I do all the things I need to do, it will be there. I took a vacation. It’s still there. It hasn’t gone nowhere, guys. Still there.”

As the laughter died down, he was asked if he was ever nervous that it wouldn’t be there. Wait. What? Rivera dismissed that idea with a wave of his arm.

“I don’t think like that,” he said softly. “I always know that it will be there. Even if it’s not, I always believe that it will be there.”

And that is part of his secret. Because he believes so strongly and convincingly, everyone else around him believes. With the aura this man exudes, 24/7, how could they do anything but believe?

“The expectation is that he’s always going to be Mo,” said Girardi. “And I think the reason you’re comfortable saying that is that all we’ve ever seen. Even when he burst on the scene in ’96, when he didn’t have much of a track record, he was great.”

“‘Great’ -- I don’t even think that’s the right word for it,” said Chamberlain. “I honestly don’t think that describes how good he has been. I don’t think there’s an adjective that can describe him.”

So hold on here. There’s a level beyond “great” somewhere out there, or up there, where only Mariano Rivera resides? There has to be a word for that, doesn’t there?

“I almost want to say ‘immortal,’” Chamberlain said. “That’s not far off.”

Good one. But there’s one slight problem with that word. When you’re immortal, you can go on forever. When you’re a 43-year-old relief pitcher, even the greatest who ever lived, you can go on only so long. And as Rivera keeps hinting, that final cutter, that final save, is creeping ever closer every day.

So that’s what made this slice of spring training life something to watch just a little extra closely Friday. There he was, on one more glorious spring morning, back on a mound, firing away -- that inimitable smile frozen on his face.

Asked if the time he missed last season made him appreciate a moment like this, The Great Mariano had to laugh.

“I always appreciate it,” he said. “That’s why I love the game of baseball. You don’t know what will be the last day you play.”