NEW YORK -- It was probably back in 2007 when I first started predicting Mariano Rivera's demise.
After all, the guy had blown two straight saves in April -- his first two save opportunities of the year, no less -- and one of them came on a three-run home run by Marco Scutaro, of all people.
Plus, his next birthday would be No. 38, and it was only natural for a player of his age to begin a decline. Certainly, I wasn't the only to hazard that guess. People in my business get paid to be ahead of the curve, not behind it.
Well, 2007 turned out to be a down year, by Mariano's standards anyway -- a mere 30 saves, his lowest for a full season as the Yankees' closer; a 3.15 ERA, his highest since his failed attempt at starting in 1995; and an unusually high WHIP of 1.121. But it was no means the end, nor the beginning of the end.
Of all the accomplishments amassed by Mariano Rivera over the course of 19 big league seasons, the most remarkable one of all may be this: At the bottom line of the back of his baseball card, there will not be that one horrific season that tells the world, generations from now, that it was time for the great Rivera to give it up.
That line appears in just about every player's record. Babe Ruth batted .181 with six home runs and 12 RBIs in 28 games as a 40-year-old Boston Brave. Tom Seaver went 7-13 with a 4.03 ERA as a 41-year-old member of the Chicago White Sox and -- gasp! -- Boston Red Sox. The 42-year-old version of Willie Mays hit just .211 in the uniform of the New York Mets.
But the 43-year-old Mariano Rivera will post a final line that most closers in baseball today, or in any era, would gladly claim for their own. Certainly, Mo would take it over his own 2007 season, the worst in his résumé as a closer, and the closest he ever came to showing signs of following the normal course of the average athletic career.
But of course, Mariano Rivera has never been close to average.
The final line of his baseball career will say nothing but this: I can still do this job. I just choose not to.
And in that way, Mariano Rivera sets himself apart once again, as one of the handful of transcendent athletes who left his game before his game left him.
Truly, you can count them on one hand: Rocky Marciano. Barry Sanders. Ray Lewis. Marvin Hagler. Tiki Barber, maybe.
This 2013 season hasn't been the best of his career; that would have been 2005, when he saved 43, posted a 1.38 ERA, allowed just two home runs all season and held opposing hitters to a .177 batting average. He came as close to a Cy Young Award that year as he ever would, finishing second to -- wait for it -- Bartolo Colon.
Mo was truly great that year. This year, he was merely very good, which is something most pitchers entrusted to get the final three outs of a game would be happy to be in any one season.
Rivera has been that, and more, for at least 17 of his 19 seasons, including the one that will be his last.
He will finish with more than 40 saves for the ninth time in his career, likely with a sub-2.30 ERA for the 14th time. In just about every category in which closers are ranked, he will finish among the top five in the American League, and the handful who have been (slightly) better than him range from five to 15 years younger.
"I think for Mariano, he has perfected his pitch so well that a little bit of drop in velocity has not affected him where it might have affected someone else," manager Joe Girardi said. "I just think he was given a gift and he uses it very well."
And for just long enough. Mariano has enjoyed a well-deserved farewell tour in every visiting park this season, and in some he has even obliged the fans by blowing a save. But nowhere has anyone had reason to feel sorry for him, or embarrassed by the way he was slogging it out long after he should have been out there.
This was no Willie Mays stumbling in the Shea Stadium outfield, or Trevor Hoffman pitching so ineffectively he was reduced in his final season to middle-relief duty.
To the end, Mo has been Mo, in defiance of those who were always quick to predict his decline (guilty as charged) and in defiance, seemingly, of the laws of nature itself.
"I think for each guy it's important to go out in your own way, if you can," said Girardi, who was forced out by the constant physical toll of catching and hit .130 in his final season as a 38-year-old St. Louis Cardinal. "Not everyone is so blessed to be able to do that."
Count Mariano Rivera as among that fortunate few. I, for one, am happy to have been wrong.