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Exit Sandman…Forever?

It appears that New York Yankees’ closer Mariano Rivera is human, after all.

Mariano Rivera (AP Photo/YES Network)

Rivera tore the ACL and meniscus in his right knee while trying to chase down a fly ball during batting practice in Kansas City Thursday night. It was a harrowing scene that was captured by YES Network cameras: the most successful relief pitcher of all-time, grimacing in pain while helplessly laying on the Kauffman Stadium warning track.

It looked bad from the beginning. The 42-year-old’s leg appeared to buckle before momentum and gravity caused him to crash into the outfield fence. The Yankees initially diagnosed the injury as a “twisted knee,” but an MRI would soon provide a more grim conclusion.

While watching the replay multiple times, Rivera’s Hall-of-Fame-caliber career flashed before my eyes.

Consider the numbers: 18 seasons (16 as a closer), 12 All-Star Games, 1,051 appearances, a Major League-record 608 saves and 2.21 career ERA in the regular season. If that isn’t enough, his postseason statistics are downright astonishing: an 8-1 record, 42 saves and a 0.70 ERA in 141 innings pitched.

Even those who aren’t Yankees’ fans must marvel at what Rivera can do on the mound. Utilizing just one pitch, a cut-fastball that is regularly clocked between 90-93 miles-per-hour, he methodically plows through opposing lineups en route to a save. It just looks so easy when the Panama native is out there.

Throughout his career, I nicknamed Rivera “The Assassin,” because he essentially kills the other team’s hopes of winning when he unassumingly jogs in from the bullpen. Like a robot, he remains expressionless as he does his job, rarely even cracking a smile until after he shakes hands with the catcher in celebration of another Yankee win. Rivera is always under control, never becoming rattled when someone reaches base — or heaven forbid, scores a run against him.

Rivera is cold-blooded, which is the ultimate compliment that you can pay a closer. You take for granted that he will record the save, and that’s why we remember his rare failures so vividly.

During road game appearances, Rivera receives “You’re really good” boos of respect from fans, even at Fenway Park in Boston. At Yankee Stadium, however, there is nothing but adulation as Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blares over the loudspeakers while he goes through his warm-up routine.

Nick Laham, Getty Images

Despite his thin frame, Rivera has been incredibly durable over the years. Prior to Thursday, his last appearance on the disabled list was in 2003! The irony is that this injury — the most debilitating of Rivera’s career — occurred to his knee. His arm, which has logged just over 1,360 innings in the Majors, remains intact and healthy.

Now, Rivera’s playing career — and life — are at a crossroads. Where will he go from here? Only the guy known by his Yankee teammates as “Mo” can answer that, and even he doesn’t know at the moment. Rivera hinted during Spring Training that 2012 may be his last season. Will this be the way his storybook career ends, on a warning track in Kansas City in early May?

Should Rivera decide to go all-out with his rehab and come back — either later this year, or more likely, sometime in 2013 — it will be due to sheer determination and desire on his part. With numerous MLB records and five World Series titles under his belt, he has nothing left to prove to his contemporaries. A comeback would be for him and him alone.

If Rivera decides to hang up his cleats, glove and #42 uniform for the last time, however, then the countdown to Cooperstown will begin immediately. After a five-year waiting period, the Yankee great will be immortalized with the other Baseball Hall of Famers.

Following the Yankees’ 4-3 loss to the Royals Thursday night, Rivera said that the pain he was suffering was more mental than physical, because he “let the team down.” Don’t fret, Mariano. For 18 years, you’ve helped lift that franchise to heights that are rarely seen in sports, and have done so in a manner that is classy and professional.

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