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Sudden Endings

The magnificent baseball career of Mariano Rivera spanned 17 years and took him from the sandlots of Panama to baseball’s highest temple, Yankee Stadium, before possibly ending in one terrible instant in Kansas City last Thursday.

Rivera was catching fly balls during batting practice (“shagging flies,” as ballplayers call it) when he twisted his right knee and crumpled to the ground on the warning track, obviously in great pain. Later that evening, doctors confirmed the worst: a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), which would require surgery and end Rivera’s season.

The 42-year-old relief pitcher had already said he would likely retire after this year, so my first thought upon hearing this news was that we had probably seen his fluid, deceptively easy-looking motion and his trademark cut fastball for the last time.

Just like that.

In my line of work, worrying about “just like that” comes with the territory. Financial planning is about playing the odds of success while defending against the risk of rolling snake-eyes.

Most people who consult financial advisors - generally a pretty successful group - are going to have long careers, followed by long retirements in which they will try to maintain a good standard of living. So we try to help them save, invest, plan their estates and otherwise organize their affairs to deal with this likely outcome.

But there is always the risk of the unexpected calamity. In my office we call it “getting hit by the beer truck,” in honor of a longtime client (a gentleman from Alabama) who often uses the phrase. We have to help our clients prepare for premature meetings with the beer truck, even though for most it will not happen.

Life insurance - the right amount, the right type, from the right company - is a starting point. I used to say that most people just out of college didn’t really need life insurance, a situation which changed when they started families or took on mortgages and other obligations. However, with college students and graduates holding more than $1 trillion of education debt, on which their parents have often co-signed, this is not always the case nowadays.

Disability insurance covers the biggest emergency need for wage earners. I have seen too many previously healthy people, in the prime of life, develop brain tumors, or have strokes, or find themselves with cancer or other potentially disabling diseases. Even single adults need some means of support if they can’t work.

Parents of young children often struggle with the question of who should raise their kids, and who should handle insurance or other money that is left for the kids’ support, if the beer truck catches both parents at once. It’s a difficult issue, yet it is one that must be considered.

Business owners like me often think of themselves as indispensable to their company. But the beer truck can find us, too. It’s difficult to ask customers to commit themselves to our care, or employees to commit themselves to our firms, if we don’t have a good succession plan laid out - just in case. Even large corporations often do a surprisingly poor job of preparing for the loss of a CEO or other key executive. Sometimes the beer truck comes in the form of a scandal or burnout that abruptly takes that key executive out of the picture.

Watching the video of Rivera falling to the ground brought to mind stories I read about a long-ago Hall of Fame shortstop by the name of Walter “Rabbit” Maranville, who played in the National League - mostly with the Boston Braves - between 1912 and 1935.

During a spring training game against the Yankees in 1934, when Maranville was 42, he tried to steal home and broke both of the major bones in his leg. Unlike Rivera, who surely can well afford to call an end to his great career, Maranville played in an era when ballplayers needed to keep working, even in the off-season. So after missing the entire 1934 season, Maranville tried to make a comeback the following year with the Braves. One of his teammates for the first part of that season was Babe Ruth, who left the Yankees when they would not offer him a job as manager.

Neither Ruth nor Maranville had much left that year. Ruth quit the team on June 1, a week after his final hurrah, a three-homer game in Pittsburgh. Maranville stuck with the team but appeared in only 23 games and batted .149. The Braves won 38 games, lost 115, and finished in last place, 61 1/2 games behind the pennant-winning Chicago Cubs.

You might say the beer truck hit the Braves that year.

Rivera was back in the Yankees clubhouse on Friday, talking about his forthcoming surgery and promising, “I’m coming back. Write it down in big letters.” If anyone could make a comeback from this sort of injury at his age, it probably would be Rivera - a great athlete who has kept himself in fine condition, and who has, by all accounts, an excellent work ethic and a strong sense of personal dignity and team loyalty. He surely does not want the last image of his career to be the sight of him lying on that outfield track in Kansas City. We can only wish him well.

Whether we see him pitch again or not, Rivera’s tumble is a useful reminder that for any of us, everything can change in an instant. We plan for the best, prepare for the worst, and accept that the beer truck eventually finds us all.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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