But even Satchel Paige had to step off the mound at some point. And some day, Rivera will have to hang up his spikes, too. When that day comes, the Yankees will need a replacement for the Sandman.
Could it be Papelbon?
The New York Post would like to think so.
But don’t throw those No. 58 Red Sox jerseys in the incinerator just yet.
"I think that's a perception that I’m gonna go somewhere else," Papelbon said last week in Fort Myers as spring training began. "I think it's … all but a perception. Right now, this is the way it's working out. It's that simple. It's one year at a time. It's working out, and both sides are happy. So why would you try to do anything else is my way of thinking."
Does that sound like somebody searching for an escape clause?
Ever since Papelbon made his major league debut in 2005, he's been playing year to year, and the 29-year-old has no problem with that. He made $335,000 in 2006, $425,500 in 2007, $775,000 in 2008, $6.25 million in 2009. This season, he stands to earn $9.35 million.
"Of course, I would love to be with Boston for a long time, but this is the way it is right now," Papelbon said. "This is the organization I started [with]. This is the organization that gave me the opportunity to play Major League Baseball. Of course, I'd want to stay here for 15 years."
But it's tough to get Papelbon locked into anything. According to ESPN.com, the Red Sox tried last winter, offering him a two-year deal in the neighborhood of $14.75 million, and he turned them down.
The Red Sox closer is eligible for free agency after the 2011 season, and it’s going to cost them to keep him. The words "hometown discount" aren't in Papelbon's vocabulary.
"I'm not afraid to show that, hey, I want to be with the Red Sox [in a multiyear deal]," Papelbon told ESPN.com. "I'd love to have that sense of security of being with a team and knowing, 'Hey, they want me, and I want them, let's have a happy marriage.'
"But what do I have to give up to be in that marriage? Understand, I'm in the prime of my career. Why would I give up something? I'd give up something if it's fair to both sides, but I want to do things for my fellow closers, just like Mo [Mariano Rivera] paved the way for me. I want every closer out there, man, to get every penny they deserve.''
Rivera is a free agent after this season. He's in the last year of three-year, $45 million deal. Yankees GM Brian Cashman isn’t tipping his hand, and Rivera is in no hurry to retire.
No one knows for certain what the future holds for Rivera or Papelbon.
If Daniel Bard shows that he can be more than a setup man, would Papelbon become expendable in Boston?
Would Theo Epstein make Papelbon available at the trade deadline this season, as a preemptive move, to get something for him instead of risk losing him to free agency?
Would Epstein pull the trigger next winter? Next season?
Would he trade him to any team but the Yankees, just to make sure Papelbon couldn’t return to Fenway wearing pinstripes?
Papelbon posted a 1.85 ERA and 38 saves in 2009. Many relievers would be popping champagne after a season like that, but it was considered a down year for Papelbon. He walked a career-high 24 in 68 innings and looked shakier than he had at any other point in his career. Giving up three runs and blowing a save in the season-ending loss left an even worse taste in the mouth.
However, it may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Red Sox this season. Maybe Papelbon will be more willing to mix in a second pitch in crucial situations. Maybe he will alter his approach overall. Maybe he returns to dominance.
Papelbon can be good for the Red Sox – on and off the field. His mouth might get him into trouble, but that unfiltered honesty also is what makes him so refreshing. In this politically correct world, where many public figures have to run their lunch choices by a team of image consultants, Papelbon lives by the beat of his own drum. When you’re pitching well, that attitude makes you colorful. When you're not, you're a bum.
Papelbon needs to prove last year was an aberration. Confidence won't be an issue. Anyone who can wear a shirt like this in public isn't going to shrink from a challenge.
Papelbon is Bill Lee mixed with William Faulkner. The Red Sox closer sometimes might appear to be full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, but he’s capable of unleashing classics.
Papelbon is going to get a lucrative long-term contract from someone. As long as a deal makes baseball and fiscal sense, it will get done in Boston. But the Red Sox – who sport one of the least sentimental front offices in sports — will dictate the terms. If a player doesn’t like them, thanks for the memories.
That's the cold, harsh business of baseball. That's when things can get ugly. It would be nice if Papelbon and the Red Sox were able to avoid that side of the game, and just get along, win a few more World Series together, smoke some cigars, do a few more jigs on the Fenway grass and ride on some duck boats through downtown Boston.
That’s how it ends in the movies. Time will tell how it ends in real life.
The title of Satchel Paige’s autobiography was Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever. He didn't, but maybe Jonathan Papelbon could pitch forever in Boston. Or at least 10 more years.
NESN.com will be answering one Red Sox question every day through Feb. 23.
Sunday, Feb. 21: Are there any leadoff options besides Jacoby Ellsbury?
Tuesday, Feb. 23: Which team improved the most in the AL East?
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