By Ernie Palladino
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To return or not to return?
That is the question facing Mariano Rivera this offseason.
So far, the best closer the game has ever seen has made no definitive decision. He's simply going through the rigorous rehab involved in returning a blown knee necessary to put himself in position for a comeback -- at age 43 -- if he so desires. But so far Yankees manager Joe Girardi has yet to question him directly on his intentions.
And even if he has chatted with Rivera, it's probably still too early for the master of the cut fastball to make a real decision. Five months into what should be an eight-month rehab is certainly too early for anything like that.
But here's the real question. Should Rivera even think about a comeback?
We all know what he said as he lay on the warning track in Kansas City, his right ACL and meniscus torn asunder while shagging batting practice flies. He immediately proclaimed that he wasn't going out like that. Not through injury. Not this proud Panamanian who spent most of his career in automatic-save mode.
"Put it down," he said shortly after that fateful day. "Write it down in big letters. I ain't going down like this."
It was easy to say it then. But as Rivera goes through the rehab, one has to wonder what's going through his mind now. ESPN went so far as to report Thursday that Rivera might actually be contemplating retirement now. Family might well be pulling him away from taking a crack at his 19th season in a major league uniform.
It might not all be about family, however rock-solid that reason is. Part of it could be physical.
The comeback road for a young player is arduous enough. For someone of Rivera's advanced age, it can be endless torture, regardless of how well the athlete has kept in shape over the years. The way Rivera has attacked the regimen has been admirable, and certainly worthy of someone seriously contemplating a comeback. But there is little doubt that the sweat equity involved could prompt a player to think otherwise.
On top of that, after the rehab is finished and the knee is once again made whole, there is still the matter of getting the rest of the body in competitive shape. Even for a player who pitches one inning at a time, maybe four outs on occasion, conditioning is extremely important. And, like rehab, the conditioning aspect takes a lot more wear and tear out of an old body than a younger one.
Rivera may well be thinking right now about whether all the trouble is worth it.
He should, because it probably isn't.
Actually, it would serve him well to get out now. His legacy as a great closer would remain intact. He would go out because of an injury to an old body, not after he came back and found out, sadly, that he, like so many others, had tried to hang on a year too long. There is no guarantee that the knee will ever allow Rivera to pitch at the same level that will put him in Cooperstown.
To see him go out any other way -- after 608 saves and five World Series rings -- would be tragic.
He has his numbers. He can only go down from here. And if he's worried about his team, well, Rafael Soriano -- expected to opt out of his deal -- and David Robertson did just fine in his absence. Nobody will ever replace Mariano Rivera completely, but those two did more than a credible job this year.
Mo can pass the torch with confidence.
Yankees fans will miss Rivera terribly, no doubt. It happens. But better to have a glorious career end this way than in potential failure.
The last vision of Mariano Rivera should be that picture of him being helped back to the dugout from the Kansas City outfield.
It's time for Mariano Rivera to get on with the business of the rest of his life.
Should Mo call it quits? Be heard in the comments below...
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