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MLB.com Columnist

Marty Noble

Rivera heads out as Yankees face uphill challenge

Rivera heads out as Yankees face uphill challenge play video for Rivera heads out as Yankees face uphill challenge

TAMPA, Fla. -- All right, so what's the big deal? The most dominant and reliable ninth-inning force in the history of the game is seven months away from putting his lethal cutter in mothballs. He said so Saturday morning, and it came as no surprise.

No one could have expected Mariano Rivera to pitch until his age exceeded his uniform number by two. As soon as he said he'd come back for 2013 following the injury to his right knee, we rightly reasoned he'd be one (more) and done. So, what's the fuss now? Why the need for a wake for his extraordinary career six months before its end?

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That's essentially what took place Saturday morning at the Yankees' Spring Training facility. Family and friends gathered to celebrate a career that would receive premature last rites. Had someone with less grace, sincerity and character been the focal point, the exercise might have been appropriately characterized as bizarre. But Rivera changes his immediate surroundings. He is so peaceful, so reverent, so pious. His presence has a powerful calming effect.

He spoke so softly, so deliberately as he thanked those in attendance, and spoke of the wonder of being a Yankee. At times, the scene seemed more Biblical than baseball, despite a mass of uniformed Yankees off to one side and gaggle of electronic media in the back of the room.

Rivera vowed not to dip his toe in the waters of retirement, but just retire. "The time has come," he said. And because he is who he is and what he is, there can be no doubt.

Rivera expressed hope that his final pitch -- a cutter, presumably -- will close out another World Series championship for the Yankees. Said a year earlier before the knee betrayed him, those words would have had a degree of credibility. But Rivera's final Yankees team will not be adequately equipped to achieve that objective.

Perhaps we witnessed a wake for a different being Saturday morning.

The Yankees appear to be sinking like a stone. The superiority that enabled Rivera to amass so many postseason records has been eroded. And we won't know until late April or early May whether an extended time lost to injury will have compromised him.

Rivera's circumstances are merely parts of an apparent team descent. The many medical charts and certain birth certificates suggest the same. There's a reason the Blue Jays have geared up since the end of last season, that the Orioles have a less modest goal this year. Each club senses the Evil Empire is crumbling. Now is the time to unseat the pinstriped despot and end the tyranny.

Conventional baseball wisdom says pennants can't be won in April, but they can be lost. And what sort of April can be expected of the Yankees at this point? Chances are they will play the month without Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson, with a shortstop who turns 39 in late June and didn't begin his in-game preparation until Saturday afternoon, with a left-handed starting pitcher who turns 41 in mid-June and with no sense of what they will have in their midst if and when Alex Rodriguez returns.

And, again, what can be expected from the great Mariano? When is the last instance of the Yankees of March being so anonymous and so openly vulnerable? Their power has been cut by departures, inaction in the free-agent market and an ill-timed adoption of austerity -- or what passes for austerity in the Yankees' world. There hasn't been a month in the last 20 years when austerity has been a greater threat to the empire George Steinbrenner built.

Not only has the Yankees' front line taken a hit, but their depth -- the quality that has set them apart from other teams for years -- is greatly diminished. Eric Chavez and Raul Ibanez are gone. They were special bench players, ideal for Yankee Stadium. Now players with less pedigree are to serve as understudies for Teixeira and Granderson.

Victories are going to seep through the new cracks.

We have some notion of how it all will play out after Rivera is done. We watched five months of "No Mo" trailers last season. The ninth inning was handled quite adequately. Someone, probably not the equal of Rafael Soriano, will get the ball in the ninth come 2014. The job probably will be less demanding. The onus will be less for Rivera's successor because, in all likelihood, there will be less to protect -- fewer ninth innings with one or two-run leads.

But what of the season the Yankees face now, a season with Mo, but with less power, prestige and promise. The job may be easier for Rivera in his final season. In a different way, it is likely to be more challenging.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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