There’s an old cliché that all things end badly, or else they wouldn’t end (Louis CK has a great bit about this and marriage).  And for the most part, that’s true, especially when we talk about baseball players.  Most players hang up their spikes only after the universe makes it abundantly clear that they can’t hack it anymore.  And yet, as you’ve no doubt heard by now, Mariano Rivera is hinting that he’s going to retire at the end of 2012.  Or at least hinting that he knows whether he’s going to retire at the end of 2012.

Rivera long ago clinched the title of the greatest closer in baseball history.  But his last several seasons have only added to the legend.  In his last four seasons, he’s posted a 1.71 ERA with a 6.86 K/BB ratio and almost a batter struck out per nine innings.  He’s allowed just 175 hits in more than 258 innings for a .241 BABIP.  Batters have posted just a .499 OPS off of him in that time, which is worse than Mario Mendoza’s career mark (.507).  So, on the whole, Mariano Rivera makes American League hitters worse than Mario Mendoza, of the famous “Mendoza Line.”  He’s saved 92% of his chances in that span, and has not allowed more than a single run in any postseason series since the 2001 World Series (a span that covers fifteen separate matchups and 62 innings).  He has been the definition of excellence.

But at some point, everything ends.  And the question, which looms larger every year, is how much longer can Rivera defy his advancing age and the laws of the universe?  This question assumes, of course, that Rivera is not a cyborg sent back from the future to protect leads from Skynet.  And as we inch closer to the inevitable day when Mo’s cutter doesn’t cut quite enough to make him effective, before we criticize his choice one way or the other, we need to ask ourselves what ending we’d most want to see (and what he’d most like to experience) to cap what has been a remarkable career.  It could go one of several ways.

Rivera could save 30 games with a 3.00 ERA and mediocre peripherals, becoming in essence a mediocre closer in the Todd Jones mode, which reminds me of E.R….

If you’re my age or older, you probably were amazed by E.R. when it first came on, with its incredible cast, riveting plots, and intense action.  It could have been simply another medical drama, but the chemistry between George Clooney and every other actor on that set, the naive enthusiasm of Noah Wyle, and the intense, seemingly realistic, and relatively gritty action in the operating room elevated it into appointment television.   It lasted 15 seasons, until only Wyle, and several of the nurses (including Long Duk Dong, for some reason) were the only original characters left.

And, understandably, over time the show lost a great deal of the luster and star power that made it so popular.  Plot lines got re-used again and again.  There were “shocking” season finales involving helicopter crashes, serial killers, and rampaging gunmen.  There was stunt casting, like bringing in John Stamos.  People slowly trickled away as E.R. became another standard medical procedural.  I’d still check it out on occasion near the end.  It was ok and the ratings were still decent, but it wasn’t special anymore.

It became Joe McGinnity.  When McGinnity came into the Majors in 1899 for John McGraw’s Baltimore Orioles, he took the league by storm in large part because he was already a fully-formed and mature 28 year old pitcher.  He was 4th in the NL in innings pitched, led the circuit in wins, and 3rd in the NL in ERA with a 2.68 mark (148 ERA+).  And he was terrific for the first six years of his ten year career, capped off by an amazing 1904 when he won 35 games with a 1.61 ERA in 408 innings, leading the NL in games, innings, ERA, ERA+, wins, winning percentage, WHIP, saves, and shutouts.  He continued to be a decent pitcher for the last four seasons in the league, and had a couple of highlights.  But for the most part, was simply a league average pitcher at best, and few noticed when he was waived by the Giants at the end of 1908.  The Iron Man returned to the minors, where he managed and pitched until he was 54 years old.  Which…is crazy.

Rivera could be his usual amazing self, saving 40-45 games, pitching his heart out in the postseason, and going out with another ring like Sandy Koufax, who went out on top sort of like M*A*S*H…

M*A*S*H was a remarkable series that started slowly, but never really stopped being good thanks to its incredible cast and strong setting.  Given that the war it dramatized and satirized only lasted three years, it’s understandable that the show had to end eventually, however.  But in a remarkable run, M*A*S*H ranked in the top ten in eight of its 11 seasons and went out with a strong final episode that is still the most watched show in television history.

It took Sandy Koufax a little bit of time to build up steam too.  The fireballing lefty simply was too wild for his own good as a youngster, but kept getting chances.  So when he finally cut his walk rate over the course of five seasons, starting in 1960, he began to take off to heights never  before reached by modern pitchers.  He led the NL in ERA in five straight seasons, won three Cy Young Awards, an MVP, and simply dominated the league.  Ultimately thwarted by an arthritic elbow, Koufax finished his final year with a 27-9 record, a 1.73 ERA, 317 strikeouts in 323 innings, 27 complete games in 41 starts, and five shutouts, and helped the Dodgers to the World Series, where they ultimately got steamrolled by the Orioles.

The end of Koufax’s career was considered both a triumph and a tragedy.  He was universally acknowledged as the greatest left-handed pitcher ever (though that’s been substantially contested recently as we’ve thought more about the conditions in which he pitched), celebrated as baseball royalty, and ushered into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.  Obviously, things would have ended differently had he not been hurt, but the end of his career served as a reminder of how ridiculously incredible he was over his final five seasons.

Rivera could finally lose a couple miles an hour off his cutter, and some of the pitch’s movement, and wind up losing his job to David Robertson, being left off the postseason roster, and hanging around collecting paychecks until the end of the season, depressing the hell out of all of us, like Steve Carlton did in 1987 and 1988, which is kind of what Little House on the Prairie and Roseanne did…

Roseanne and Little House were huge hits to very different demographics.  Little House sugarcoated the 19th century to look like a simpler, more wholesome time, and served up a host of characters who always seemed to mean well.  Roseanne aimed lower, at blue-collar families who saw their own struggles mirrored in the decidedly un-sugarcoated Connor clan.  But in their final moments, the residents of Walnut Grove and Roseanne decide to destroy any and all of the good will they have built up over the years by essentially destroying the worlds they had built.

A ton had happened to Roseanne in the first eight seasons of her show.  She had a baby, her best friend came out as a lesbian (which was a big deal in 1992), her kids got married, her husband had a heart attack but recovered, and the family had won the lottery.  But through it all, they had persevered and loved each other.  And then, in the finale, we find out that some of it, heck maybe all of it, was just a book that Roseanne was writing.  In her real life, her husband had died, the family still struggled to make ends meet, and major character relationships are drastically revised.  So, not only is the world viewers were watching a complete lie, but everything is actually much, much worse than anyone had suspected.  Surprise!

The end of Little House was just as abrupt and shocking.  Walnut Grove is being taken over by an evil land developer, who kicks all the townspeople off of their land.  The only way to save the village, Michael Landon and company decide, is to destroy it.  Literally.  With dynamite.  Which, ok, is kind of a cool visual, but which completely undermines the tone of the series, especially since all the residents are now homeless.  So while they might feel righteous marching away singing Onward Christian Soldiers, the reality of having to scatter and rebuild their lives is going to dawn on them shortly.

Steve Carlton was, of course, one of the greatest lefties in baseball history, and was consistently  wonderful for roughly 18 seasons, winning exactly 300 games with 3709 strikeouts through the end of 1983.  When he turned 39, however, his velocity fell off and he became much more of a finesse pitcher.  This new approach also played havoc with his control, and his walk rate shot up.  But he wouldn’t stop pitching.  In 1986, he pitched for three clubs, was released by two of them and posted a 5.10 ERA.  It was even worse in 1987, when he was 42, as he was released by the horrible Cleveland Indians (for whom he had a 5.37 ERA in 109 innings, latched on with the eventual World Champion Twins, for whom he had a 6.70 ERA and was left off the postseason roster.  At some point, you would have hoped that someone tried to talk some sense into Lefty, but Carlton was determined to give it one last try.  He broke camp with Minnesota in ’88 and started in the bullpen.  He gave up four runs in his first outing, and six runs (in a single inning) in his second.  Somehow, he managed to convince Tom Kelly to give him one last start.  So on April 23, he pitched five innings against the Indians, giving up 9 runs in 5 innings.  He was immediately put on waivers, and then released a few days later.  And, as a young Twins fan, those are the only games I ever saw Steve Carlton pitch.  It was an unfitting end for a great master of the mound, and I hope none of us want to see Rivera’s aura of invincibility tainted by a similar period.

Bonus:  Rivera’s career is not going to end with significant unanswered questions, given how often his career has been studied and written about, and his place in history discussed.  It won’t end like Addie Joss’s, who died suddenly at just 30 of tubercular meningitis with a career ERA+ of 142 and who may have ended up rivaling Walter Johnson as the American League pitcher of the 1910s, which make him similar to Lost and The X-Files, two shows that promised to resolve their lingering questions in their finales, but never, ever did.   GAAAAAH.  Not that I’m frustrated or anything.