Rivera the latest to seek the perfect ending
Legendary closer can join the thin ranks of older players who finished careers well
Mariano Rivera shared a distinct vision for the end of his playing career when he announced Saturday that he will retire at the end of the season, his 19th with the Yankees.
"The last game, I hope, will be throwing the last pitch in the World Series. That's how I envision to be my last game of my last pitch on the mound," Rivera said during a news conference in Tampa, Fla. "Winning the World Series, that would be my ambition."
Rivera isn't one to prioritize individual goals over those of the team, but the 43-year-old does have the opportunity to cap his record-setting career with one more rare personal achievement. Already the all-time leader in saves in the regular season (608) and postseason (42), he may become one of the select few to leave the game not only on his own terms, but with a performance befitting his overall body of work.
For the vast majority of players, Hall of Famers included, injuries or deteriorating performance bring about retirement. History is littered with stars' subpar or even ugly final seasons, from Willie Mays to Mike Schmidt to Greg Maddux.
On the other hand, there was Ted Williams, who not only hit .316 with 29 home runs in 1960, during which he turned 42, he slammed a homer into the Fenway Park bullpen on the final at-bat of his career.
Many of the best last years come from those whose playing days ended prematurely. Among position players, the top wins above replacement (WAR) total in a career-ending campaign, according to Baseball-Reference.com, was by Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was banned from baseball due to the 1919 Black Sox scandal after posting a 7.3 WAR as a 32-year-old in 1920. Sandy Koufax dwarfs all pitchers with the 10.0 WAR he produced in 1966, before an arthritic elbow ended his career at age 30.
Still, as Chipper Jones proved last year, graceful final acts are not impossible for those further along in years. The longtime Braves star became one of 30 position players to have a WAR number above 2 -- about the average for a starting position player -- while playing his last season at 35 or older. He was one of five to hit that mark at 40 or older, joining the likes of Barry Bonds, who led the Major Leagues with a .480 on-base percentage as a 42-year-old in 2007.
"It's cool for me to know I can still go out and play at a relatively high level," Jones said last April, on his way to producing an .832 OPS in 112 games. "It's not that big of a deal that I'm playing at 40. But when I go out there, I want to be productive. If I didn't feel like I could be productive, I would have hung it up."
Only 18 pitchers age 35 or older -- and five 40 or older -- have hit the 2.0 WAR plateau in their last season, led by one of Rivera's former teammates. Mike Mussina called it quits in 2008, after an age-39 season in which he won 20 games for the first time, recording a 3.37 ERA and 4.8 WAR in 34 starts.
"I didn't want to be one of those guys that bounces all over the place," Mussina said when he announced his decision to retire that November. "That's not how I feel about the game. If I can't contribute at the level I want to contribute at, then someone else should be doing it."
When it comes to closers, Rivera already owns the best single-season saves total for a 40-year-old after racking up 44, to go along with a 1.91 ERA, in 2011. Now he can become the first 40-plus pitcher to save even 25 games in a final season.
Six have accomplished the feat at 35 or older, the last being Billy Wagner in 2010. Like Rivera, Wagner returned from a serious surgery -- Tommy John in his case -- to make one more run at a championship. The left-hander, fifth on the all-time saves list, didn't capture a ring but did successfully close out 37 games with a career-best 1.43 ERA as a 38-year-old with the Braves.
"I knew I was at the end. My mind was telling me I'd had enough," Wagner said last year.
"I never lost my competitiveness. I definitely wanted to go out and win. But the preparation and the dedication it takes every day was getting harder and harder to do because I was really starting to miss what my kids were doing. They were getting to that age where they were a lot of fun and I just didn't like not being there for them."
One recent All-Star who concluded with both a solid regular-season performance and a World Series title was Curt Schilling. The right-hander was 40 when he went 9-8 with a 3.87 ERA and 3.8 WAR for the 2007 Red Sox, then helped them to a championship by going 3-0 with a 3.00 ERA in four playoff outings.
But Schilling didn't formally retire until 2009, after missing the 2008 season with a shoulder injury.
If things break right for Rivera, he could wind up with something as exceptional as his devastating cutter: the perfect exit.
"Now is the time," he said. "I have given everything, and the time is almost ending. The thing that I have, the little gas I have left, is everything for this year. After that, I'll empty everything. There's nothing left. I did everything, and I'm proud of it. That's why it's time."
Andrew Simon is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.