A few hours before the start of the 2009 All-Star Game, Andrew Bailey was standing in the outfield at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, soaking in the atmosphere.

"Want to play catch?" New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera said.

Then a rookie with the Oakland Athletics, Bailey nodded, nearly speechless.

"Growing up in the New York-New Jersey area and going to school in Staten Island, he's the man," the injured Red Sox closer said yesterday by phone from Fort Myers. "He's what you look at and the first one that comes to mind when you think of a closer. For me, having only 21/2 months in the big leagues, it was surreal."

So, Bailey was stunned to learn Rivera suffered a season-ending — and perhaps career-threatening — knee injury while shagging fly balls during batting practice Thursday in Kansas City. Bailey is recovering from his own freak injury, a spring-training collision at first base that resulted in surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb.

But Rivera is 42 and had hinted this season may be the last in a career that has defined greatness for the modern closer. Rivera pledged yesterday that he will return next season.