Mariano Rivera gets his record-breaking 602nd save, September 19, 2011 at Yankee Stadium.

It’s unusual, if not unheard of, for a baseball team’s fans to love their closing pitcher the way Yankee fans love Mariano Rivera.

Then again, it’s unusual to find someone like Mariano Rivera, on or off the baseball field.

That’s why last night’s news hit us all so hard. A collapse on the warning track at Kaufmann Stadium in Kansas City turned out to be a torn ACL. This certainly means that Rivera is out for the year, and quite likely it also means that his pitching career is over. While many fans have assumed that Mo would retire at the end of the 2012 season, this isn’t how any of us imagined his incredible career ending.  It was supposed to end with fanfare—ideally, of course, when Rivera recorded one last out in a deciding game of the World Series, bringing the Yankees their 28th championship. Instead, last night we were watching with tears in our eyes as Mo said that he wasn’t sure he’d ever pitch again, that he’d let his teammates down, and that he was staying in Kansas City for the time being so that he could “be there for the guys.”

Such an ending feels incomplete, unfair, and just plain wrong. Yet, as heartbreaking as it all is, it also reminds me of why we Yankee fans have been so blessed to have Mo on our team for so many years.  So now, sad as I still am at this news, I want to shift my focus away from how Mo’s time in baseball is apparently ending and celebrate what has been an amazing, inspiring career.

There generally wasn’t a whole lot of suspense when Mariano Rivera took the mound in the 9th inning. Most of the time, the Yankees had the lead, and with Mo pitching, they were going to keep it and win. The lack of suspense didn’t matter then; the excitement came from watching one of the most talented players in baseball at work. No matter how many times we saw Rivera throw that famous cutter, and no matter how many batters we saw him strike out or saves we saw him record, getting to see him pitch was a treat. Most of the Yankee home games I’ve been to weren’t particularly eventful, but I’ve never minded, because I always enjoyed seeing Rivera get the save, not to mention the thunderous standing ovation as he jogged onto the field to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”

The numbers for Mo’s career are certainly impressive. He’s recorded 608 regular season saves and 42 postseason saves (how fitting).  He has career ERA of 2.21 and a WHIP of 1.00, as well as 1,119 strikeouts. I’m sure that someone better versed in advanced statistics than I am could offer some more insights on that front. However, as remarkable as these numbers all are, they don’t tell the whole story. Yes, Mariano Rivera is the greatest closing pitcher in MLB history, and of course his incredible talent has a lot to do with that. But he is also the greatest because of his dedication to the game and to his team. Every game mattered to him in its entirety, whether he was going to get a save opportunity or not. By all accounts, he is an excellent teammate who is as consistent in being a friend and counselor to his fellow Yankees as he is in getting those saves. Though confident in his abilities (and why shouldn’t he be?), Rivera is also known for his humility and his quickness to give credit to his teammates for their successes. It’s never just about him.

Perhaps, though, Mariano Rivera has been at his most admirable on those occasions when things haven’t gone well. His blown saves are few and far between, for sure, but they’re so rare that they’ve always gotten noticed. Failure is difficult for any athlete to deal with, but Mo always faced the screw-ups and scrutiny with dignity. He took responsibility for his infrequent failures and promised to do better next time. Even with the disappointment of a loss, it was impossible not to admire his graciousness, and we Yankee fans knew that he would indeed do better next time. Greatness isn’t just about how rarely you mess up; it’s about coming back from those unusual failures as good as ever. Mariano Rivera has exemplified that throughout his baseball career.

Even with the speculation running rampant all over the Internet, I think it’s way too soon to know whether Rivera will want and be able to pitch during the 2013 season, or whether this really is the end of the road for him. Obviously, my fellow Yankee fans and I are hoping for the former. But whatever the future holds, though, this much is true: upon his retirement, Mariano Rivera will leave one of the greatest legacies in the history of professional sports, both on and off the field. His pitching talents are certainly something for younger players to aspire to, but his devotion to his teammates and his humility in the face of unprecedented success are even more so. Whether an athlete on the field or a fan in the stands, his example is one that we can and should all be proud to follow.

It’s perfectly understandable for Yankee fans, and baseball fans in general, to be sad right now, regardless of what you’ve heard about crying in baseball. Last night’s news was tough to hear, and the uncertainty in the air isn’t any easier. But despite this unfortunate, heartbreaking injury, Mariano Rivera remains dedicated to his beloved team, continuing to demonstrate why we’ve admired him all these years. Wherever his journey takes him next, we fans will certainly have something to feel sad about when he retires, but we will have far, far more to celebrate.

P.S. Mariano Rivera to reporters today: “I’m coming back. Write it down in big letters. I’m not going out like this.”

This is exactly what I’m talking about. We’re all rooting for you, Mo!

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