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SAM MELLINGER There has never been a pitcher quite like Mariano Rivera

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Saturday, May 11, 2013, at 9:58 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, May 24, 2013, at 10:59 a.m.

The perfect moment in a career that's close to perfect happens in a windowless room with two ficus trees in the guts of Kauffman Stadium. Mariano Rivera wanted this moment. He is driving this moment. He sometimes wonders if God chose him for this moment.

People around him are wiping their eyes. The man in front is talking about his son, a cancer patient, begging his coach to pitch one more inning of Little League. The painkillers made Jonas Borchert weak, but he thinks his team needs him. So he goes back out, and he pitches.

"I appreciate that," Rivera says. "I will keep that always in my mind. I appreciate that."

This is the part of Rivera's final season — the closing of a career we'd think impossible if he hadn’t lived it — that only a select group of baseball fans are seeing.

It is unprecedented, as far as anyone can remember, a no-doubt Hall of Famer asking to meet fans on his way into retirement. Who else makes their farewell tour about others?

Then again, Rivera has always been different. There has never been a pitcher quite like this son of a Panamanian fisherman, never a career quite like this. Rivera wanted to retire after last season, but says he couldn’t let his last active day in uniform be tearing his knee on the Kauffman Stadium warning track shagging batting practice fly balls last May.

He is back almost exactly one year later, now 43, and you can’t tell the difference from when he was in his twenties: he’s 14 for 14 in save opportunities with a 1.76 ERA. He got his 622nd save on Saturday — that’s 21 more than Trevor Hoffman, and 144 more than anyone else.

That may have been his last time pitching here, and if so he came in to a nice ovation from the home fans. Sunday will be his last day in Kansas City (barring the playoffs, anyway) which makes it the last time we’ll see a man who has redefined part of baseball in a most incredible way.

Rivera’s retirement is a mile marker in baseball history. He is the oldest player in the sport, the last No. 42, and who’s to say if we’ll ever see another like him? His career has basically been one 18-year-old peak — that knee injury the only interruption. He is the all-time saves leader (622), a career 2.21 ERA and the only man since World War I to pitch more than 1,000 innings and average fewer than one baserunner per three outs.

He’s been even better in the postseason — an 0.70 ERA and an integral part of five world championships. Even his greatest professional disappointment is a symbol of his dominance. Game seven of the 2001 World Series is among the most incredible outcomes in recent sports history because Rivera gave up the winning run (on a blooper over the shortstop).

He first pitched in the big leagues 18 years ago this month. That’s long enough that guys he currently pitches against not only watched him growing up, many can’t remember major-league baseball without him.

In a sport usually predicated on surprise, Rivera built a legendary career even as every hitter he faced knew exactly what nearly every pitch he threw would look like. They just never could figure out how to hit it. Rivera became the standard of ninth inning dominance — he did more for “Enter Sandman” than Metallica ever could on their own — by throwing the same pitch over and over and over again.

One point of Rivera’s career that’s often missed or misrepresented: he didn’t always throw that cutter. When he broke into the big leagues in 1995, he featured a hard and high fastball that seemed to explode up into the zone and into the hands of right-handers. It’s actually sort of the antithesis of the cutter he’s made famous, but it’s interesting that his numbers B.C. — Before Cutter — are basically identical to the rest of his career.

But he will always be remembered for that cutter, the pitch that’s keyed more wins than Nolan Ryan’s fastball. Nobody has ever mastered a single pitch this way. Rivera discovered it by accident, in 1997, and has called it a gift from God. Hitters have always said it came from somewhere else.

Dozens and dozens of big league pitchers throw a cutter, and that fact alone is due in no small part to Rivera. Many of them have asked Rivera for help, and he’s tried. Shown them how he holds the ball, where he releases it, how he moves his arm through. None of it has helped much. Nobody else’s cutter breaks as late as Rivera’s, or hits the corner of the plate as often.

Combined with an unparalleled consistency — teammates and coaches talk more about Rivera’s ability to be consumed by the moment and then move on as they do his physical gifts — the pitch has made Rivera better at his job than perhaps anyone in sports has been at theirs.

He is old enough that his son is a college relief pitcher, accomplished enough that he’s working on an autobiography, and aware enough that he is asking to meet fans in every city during this final season. He met wounded veterans in Tampa, where someone joked he was thrilled Rivera was finally retiring. He met stadium workers in Cleveland, where they reminded Rivera of baseball’s universal appeal.

If Rivera hadn’t torn his knee that afternoon here last year, he would’ve retired without this experience — one he wishes every player would experience, and one he says is changing his life. Rivera considers this final season a gift from God, just like the cutter that’s made him rich and famous.

It is one more remarkable twist in a life and career full of them already, one that might not ever be back in Kansas City again after today.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow him at Twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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