KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Mariano Rivera sat on a chair in the corner of the visitor’s clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium, his right knee tightly wrapped Friday night and crutches resting against a nearby locker.
In one declarative statement, the Yankees’ closer put to rest any notion that he’d shuffle off into retirement after a devastating injury sustained the previous night in batting practice.
“I’m coming back. Write it down in big letters. I’m not going out like this,” Rivera said.
The 12-time All-Star vowed he will return to the mound by 2013, despite hinting in spring training that this season may be his last. He said he reflected on the injury at his hotel room in the wee hours of Friday morning before making his decision.
“I love to play the game. To me, I don’t think going out like this is the right way,” Rivera said. “I don’t want to retire because I got hurt in the way that it happened. I don’t think like that. With the strength of the Lord, I just have to continue.”
Rivera tore his ACL and damaged his meniscus when his foot caught near the outfield wall before the series opener against Kansas City. An MRI taken during the game revealed the extent of the injury, and Rivera dabbed tears from his eyes when he spoke in the clubhouse Thursday night.
He wasn’t sure at the time whether he would return.
He was certain of it less than 24 hours later.
“Miracles happen,” Rivera said with a smile. “I’m a positive man. The only thing is that I feel sorry I let down my teammates. Besides that I’m OK.”
Rivera’s decision was merely the start of an encouraging night for New York. CC Sabathia pitched into the eighth inning and Derek Jeter belted a two-run homer in the seventh inning, helping the Yankees snap a three-game losing streak with a 6-2 win over the Royals.
“It’s always tough when you lose the greatest closer in the history of baseball,” Sabathia said. “That was the first time since I’ve been here that I didn’t have him out there.”
Rivera spoke with New York Mets medical director Dr. David Altchek, who performed surgery on his shoulder following the 2008 season, and was told that he should be ready to work out again in about five months. Rivera hopes that allows him to pitch by the start of spring training.
“You know, I just kind of had a feeling in talking to him last night that it wasn’t the way he wants to go out,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “He still has to get through this rehab and we’ll see where he’s at, but Mo wants to do things on his own terms, and determine when he’s done, and I don’t think he wanted to be done because of an injury.”
Rivera remained with the team Friday night in Kansas City. He plans to return to New York this weekend before consulting with Yankees team physician Dr. Christopher Ahmad.
Rivera said he was touched by the outpouring of support he received after the injury — even Miami Heat star LeBron James mentioned the “freak accident.” There was a bouquet of flowers in the empty locker that adjoined Rivera’s in the clubhouse, bringing a smile to his face.
“He’s special,” Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine said Friday night in Boston. “Hopefully he’ll come back, even though he’s with the bad guys.”
Royals manager Ned Yost called Rivera “one of a kind,” while Philadelphia closer Jonathan Papelbon referred to him as the “godfather” of their role.
“It’s just kind of tough to put into words,” Papelbon said. “It’s just tough to see your leader, your idol — it’s hard to even comprehend it or talk about it.”
Longtime Yankees manager Joe Torre called the injury unfortunate.
“Even though he has a tall mountain to climb I think he still has a lot of fight left in him,” said Torre, now the MLB’s vice president for operations. “It’s a testament to Mariano’s work ethic that he was injured while preparing for a game as he has done his entire career.”
Rivera had lunch with Alex Rodriguez on Friday and spoke with Derek Jeter in front of the captain’s locker when they arrived at the ballpark. He planned to address the rest of the team before Friday night’s game against the Royals.
“We need him around and we need his presence and his leadership,” A-Rod said. “He promised me that he’s going to be around as much as possible and I’m going to hold him up to that.”
Jeter simply shrugged when he was asked about Rivera making a comeback, pointing out that he knew all along that his close friend of some 20 years would never be forced into retirement.
“Regardless of when he decides to retire or slow down, I think we’re going to remember him for everything that he’s done,” Jeter said. “People aren’t going to remember him for this. It’s an unfortunate incident. Whenever he decides to do it, it’s going to be the same story.”
Girardi said that David Robertson and Rafael Soriano will close games the remainder of the season, though he seemed to indicate Robertson will get the first shot.
The 27-year-old Robertson emerged as a dependable setup man for Rivera, tossing 11 scoreless innings to start the season. He’s coming off a breakout year in which he appeared in 70 games with a 1.08 ERA, earning his first All-Star selection in the process.
“Very confident in Robby,” first baseman Mark Teixeira said. “He’s been so good for us in the eighth-inning role. He’s got great stuff. He’s got confidence. He’s got the support from us and we hope to hand him a lot of leads.”
The Yankees officially placed Rivera on the disabled list prior to the game, giving them 10 players on the DL — one fewer than the rival Red Sox.
In a flurry of roster moves, right-hander Michael Pineda was transferred to the 60-day DL, and outfielder Dewayne Wise and right-hander Cody Eppley were brought up from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Right-handed reliever D.J. Mitchell was optioned to Triple-A.
It’s the first time that Rivera has been on the disabled list since 2003, when he missed time with a groin injury. But the sting of the move was lessened by Rivera’s declaration that he would resume his sterling career once his knee has been repaired.
“I thought he was going to come back anyways,” Teixeira said. “I was one of those guys that didn’t believe he was going to retire. He’s still one of the best players in the game. It’s tough to think at 42 he’d walk away.”