No mo' Mariano? Don't bet on it

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- If there is a positive spin to be put on the terribly sad story of Mariano Rivera's apparently season-ending knee injury, it is this: Maybe it just wasn't time yet for the greatest closer in baseball history to call it quits.

Because in spite of what Rivera said in the maelstrom of emotions swirling through his mind immediately after hearing the chilling diagnosis -- torn ACL and torn meniscus in his right knee -- it is hard to imagine him walking out of baseball the way he hobbled out of the New York Yankees' clubhouse Thursday night.

Asked if he thought he could come back from major knee surgery, Rivera dropped his head and whispered, "At this point, I don't know. At this point, I don't know."

Then he fell silent, overcome with emotion.

"My pain is more mental than physical," he said, after he had collected himself. "You let the team down."

And once again, he fell silent for more than 20 seconds, his eyes brimming with tears.

Before this night, I was fully convinced that Rivera was in his victory lap, that he would finish this season and then walk away, having accomplished literally everything one player could accomplish in his chosen sport.

Now, I think the same qualities that made Rivera the quintessential closer will drive him to start all over again.

You don't do what Mariano Rivera has done -- from undergoing elbow surgery as a 23-year-old pitcher, to "failing" as a starter at 25, to serving an apprenticeship under John Wetteland and finally emerging, at 27 years old, as not only a premier closer, but eventually as the best closer who ever did the job -- without an extraordinary stock of discipline and determination and competitive fire.

I can't imagine Mariano Rivera not even making an attempt at coming back, if for no other reason than to leave the game on his terms, not at the whim of a patch of dirt in a Midwestern ballpark.

With Michael Pineda, a 23-year-old of immense talent and questionable self-discipline, it is legitimate to wonder whether he is willing to pay the extreme price a comeback from surgery for a torn labrum will ask of him.

Not so with Rivera. If it is merely a question of hard work, of wanting it so bad you are willing to sweat blood all winter to make it happen, then you have to figure he has a better-than-average shot, even at 43 years old, an age he will reach on his next birthday.

Ever optimistic, Yankees manager Joe Girardi would not allow himself to fully commit to what he called "the preliminary report," as if the Yankees' doctors could look at the same MRI the Royals' team physician, Dr. Vincent Key, read and somehow come up with a more hopeful diagnosis.

But even Girardi had to acknowledge the seriousness of the injury, and Rivera's situation. "If that's the report, if that's what it is, that's about as bad as it gets," he said. "Let's let him see our doctors. [But] if that's what it is, that's not a good report."

Asked if it meant that Rivera was likely lost not only for the season but perhaps for as much as a year, Girardi said, "I've never seen anyone come back before that."

By contrast, Rivera seemed sure of his immediate fate. He described his ACL as "Torn. Broken. The meniscus, also."

And he seemed as disconsolate as any professional athlete I have ever seen. This time, the despair wasn't over the loss of a game or a season, but perhaps a career.

He was asked, inevitably, about the wisdom of shagging flies, a practice he has engaged in for years now, in preparation for what he hoped would someday be an inning in the outfield -- center field, of course -- in a real game. He has nagged Girardi repeatedly about letting him play out there someday, and Girardi has rebuffed him, but in private moments the manager has hinted that it might happen, maybe late in Mo's final season.

Now, the seemingly harmless practice had become a scapegoat, a handhold for the finger-pointers and blame-layers to latch onto.

"I don't want to have it any other way," Rivera said. "If it's gonna happen like that, at least let it happen doing what I love, you know? And shagging, I love to do. If I had to do it over again, I would do it again. No hesitation."

Girardi echoed the sentiment.

"Mo's been shagging for a long, long time," he said. "Not one time was I ever concerned about it. You have freak injuries, and this is one of them. I've never seen Mo do anything recklessly. I've never seen Mo dive or try to rob a home run. You have to allow him to be an athlete and be a baseball player and have fun out there. It's one of the ways he exercises. It's really unfortunate."

That it is, for Rivera and for the Yankees. The injury certainly left a pall hanging over the clubhouse, both before the game, when everyone was hoping for the best, and after, when they all had learned the worst.

But the same way it needn't be the end for the Yankees -- someone was going to eventually have to replace Mariano, and David Robertson, come on down! -- it might not be the end for Rivera, either.

Maybe he will decide that enough is enough, that this injury was a sign that it really was time for him to get out of the game.

Or maybe he will see it another way, as a sign that it was not time to walk away, that if he retired at the end of this season he would be leaving some good baseball on the table.

As always, Rivera was cryptic about his intentions, but consider this statement: "It's not an easy situation but we've been through this before, and we're being tested one more time. There's reasons why it happens. You have to take it the way it is and fight, fight through it. Now we have to just fight."

Would anyone be shocked if it turns out Mariano Rivera has enough fight left in him to give it one more shot?