Greatness and saving grace

When is enough, enough?

It is a rare and happy thing to grow old and great in your craft. A gift and an achievement and a testament to your own hard work, it's also a purely blind and unreckoned blessing from good luck. Never forget that.

I had meant, again, for this to be a simple birthday wish for Martin Brodeur, a goaltender whose work I deeply admire and who turns 40 Sunday as the winningest goalie in NHL history. On what must be the cusp of his retirement, he's been sharp enough these last two weeks to keep the Devils pointed straight into the next round of the playoffs.

Instead, some thoughts today on midlife and bad chance and the heartbreaking fall of Mariano Rivera.

Like Brodeur a long-form genius of the save, Rivera made it to age 42 with his ticket punched for the Hall of Fame before dark luck intervened. Put a foot wrong and see where Fate takes you. He may or may not work his way back for another season or three (who would ever think to bet against him), but what if this had happened in 1995? An inch this way or that and maybe you're finished before you start, gathered up by the big kaboom.

Consider the relief pitcher and the goalie then, themselves a last line of defense against chaos and failure, who both made it through to greatness.

As good as they are, the New Jersey Devils have never much captured the national imagination. Travel anywhere west of the Poconos or south of the Pine Barrens and you'll hear little of them. Condescended to by the media kingpins on Sixth Avenue, and ignored by Real America©, one of the best NHL franchises of the last quarter-century still feels like a regional attraction. The Devils hover variably in the average hockey fan's esteem somewhere below the Original Six or the oddball dynasties of the Islanders and the Oilers, and somewhere above the punchline status of the latter expansions. Brodeur's celebrity suffers in the same way. Consider what an unrivaled giant he'd be if he had instead played 20 years for the Canadiens or even the Rangers.

Rivera's history is the opposite. Most dominant reliever in baseball or not, it surely helped his legend that he played for the inescapable Yankees.

We tend to romanticize genius as an attribute of the young, something mercurial. A lightning strike. It's easy to forget sustained inspiration across the years, to mistake it for something prosaic, like "work ethic" or "determination" or "character." While those things are right and maybe even necessary, it's an error on the order of calling Bach or Picasso or Garcia Marquez a "compiler."

Genius that repeats and repeats and repeats over the long haul is the rarest gift in the world. And requires some help from wherever help comes from; to keep you upright, to keep you from slipping in the shower, to keep you from putting that foot wrong or standing an inch this way or that while the planets turn and nations fall and things go sour all around you.

To succeed so well for so long while all those others drop away must be terrible and wonderful at once. How many potentially great relievers have come to nothing across the arc of Rivera's career? How many great goalies never blossomed across the span of Brodeur's?

Even to the strongest, healthiest challenger, their numbers now seem Ruthian, insurmountable. Which means of course they'll be beaten, but who knows when?

Jonathan Quick, this year's new playoff hotness for the Kings of Los Angeles, for example, needs to win only another 525 regular-season hockey games across the next 14 years to creep up on old Grand-Père Brodeur. This will require not only skill and hard work but the cooperation of Fate, too. No falling pianos, no bad shellfish, no icy sidewalks. Genius alone, no matter how incandescent, won't be enough.

It's easy to forget how long we've had them both.

"When is enough, enough?" one of the hockey guys wondered during the Game 3 Flyers-Devils broadcast Thursday night. Sooner or later chaos and bad footing overtake us all.

Brodeur played in the NHL for the first time on March 26, 1992. Rivera threw his first pitch in the majors on May 23, 1995. Martin and Mariano. Two men now coming to the middle of things with the rest of us, but already at the end of their long professional lives. Two men whose job is prevention, whose job it was and is to keep bad things from happening. Whose grace all these years has been measured by what they could save.

When is enough, enough?

No idea. But I thank both men as best I can for the chance to follow the experiment.