TAMPA, Fla. — Mariano Rivera and his family walked into the pavilion behind the third-base stands at Steinbrenner Field followed by his New York Yankees’ teammates.
It was the start of the long goodbye for baseball’s greatest closer.
Dressed in a dark jersey top and pinstriped uniform pants, Rivera announced what already had leaked out in prior days: This will be his 19th and final major league season.
And the 43-year-old has a clear vision of how he wants his career to end.
“The last game I hope will be throwing the last pitch in the World Series,” he said. “Winning the World Series, that would be my ambition.”
Rivera said he made the decision before arriving at spring training. With the entire Yankees’ team looking on — including longtime teammates Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte — Rivera said he knew the time was right for his decision. Rivera sat a table and team officials, led by managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner and manager Joe Girardi, sat nearby.
“I have just a few bullets left,” he said.
He then made his first game appearance since April 30, throwing 15 pitches during a 1-2-3 fifth inning against Atlanta. Looking like his overpowering self of old, Rivera retired Dan Uggla on a popup to second, then threw called third strikes past Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson.
“It was great to be on the mound again,” Rivera said with a big smile.
Rivera jogged onto the field from the right-field bullpen to a standing ovation as Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” was played, then left the mound to another loud ovation. He called the whole day “overwhelming.”
“It’s wonderful,” Rivera said. “I can’t ask for more than that.”
With a dominating cut fastball few batters have figured out, Rivera holds the career saves record with 608 and has helped the Yankees win five World Series titles. He combined with Jeter, Pettitte and Jorge Posada to form the Yankees’ Core Four.
“We just have a special relationship,” Pettitte said. “I don’t know how to explain it. Obviously, when you spent as much time together after as many years as we’ve been together, you just kind of grow a little closer to one another than you would with other teammates. He’s always been there for me.”
Rivera briefly spent time with Pettitte and Jeter following the news conference, then headed toward the back field next to the pavilion to work out with the other pitchers.
“What almost got me was seeing the whole team there,” Rivera said. “I was like, ‘Wow!’ It was great that Joe allowed it.”
Jeter said it’s great that Rivera has “come to peace with what he wants to do.”
“Now he can enjoy this season,” the Yankees captain said. “I think it’s going to be a special year for him. I’m happy for him. He’s made this decision, and it’s the best one for him and his family.”
Rivera missed most of last year after tearing his right knee while shagging flyballs during batting practice in early May. Rivera said he would have retired at the end of last season if he had not gotten hurt.
“I didn’t want to leave like that,” he said. “I felt like I wanted to give everything.”
Rivera also said he wanted to give Yankees fans around the major leagues a chance to see him one more time, knowing this will be the end.
“I’m actually appreciative that we get to enjoy him for one more year,” Girardi said. “I think he’s prepared to go 100 per cent. I think he’ll have a good year. It’s been a real treat for me. I was relaxed when he came into the game as a catcher, and I’m relaxed when he comes into the game as a manager, so that’s probably about the highest compliment you can pay a closer.”
Rivera’s wife and two children were by his side for the news conference. He began by playfully thanking the Yankees for giving him a new contract for two additional years through 2015 — which would break a team policy of not negotiating new deals before the old ones expire.
“It’s not too easy when you come to a decision like this,” Rivera said, turning serious. “After this year, I will be retired. … Now you’re hearing it from me. It’s official now.”
While others have proclaimed him the best closer in baseball history, Rivera wouldn’t put that label on himself.
“I don’t feel myself, the greatest of all time. I’m a team player,” he said. “I would love to be remembered as a player who was always there for others.”
Yankees general Brian Cashman said he knew Rivera’s intention was to retire last season.
“He’s irreplaceable,” Cashman said. “He is the greatest of all-time. I’ve known him since he was in the minor leagues, and he’s never changed once. You see a lot of players that get a lot of money, become famous and change over time. He hasn’t changed a bit. I’ve got more respect for him as a player and person because of that.”
Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage, a Yankees’ guest instructor, called Rivera “not only a great pitcher, but as great a person.” Gossage noted that the role of closer has gone from multiple innings to basically a one-inning job.
“Mo is as good as anybody that’s ever done it,” Gossage said. “The last thing I want to do is take anything away from this guy, he is great. But I would throw out the challenge that, do what we did and we’ll compare apples to apples. We didn’t get to pitch just one inning, but I believe today is the way they should be used.”
Former Yankees catcher Jorge Posada said there is only one Mariano Rivera.
“There won’t be another person who will come along and do what he did,” Posada said in a statement. “I’m so happy he is going out on his terms. Now every time he steps into a ballpark this year, teams and fans can celebrate and appreciate what he has meant to this great game we play.”
Rivera said he will miss being on the field but not the long travel and many nights in hotels. He will be the last player to wear No. 42 — retired for Jackie Robinson by Major League Baseball in 1997 but allowed to remain for players using it at the time.
“Being the last player to wear No. 42 is a privilege,” he said.
Rivera has not pitched in an exhibition game this spring training. He usually goes at his own pace in camp, working in the bullpen and throwing in simulated games — while avoiding bus trips to opponents’ spring ballparks.
The 12-time All-Star has earned a record 42 saves in the post-season while putting up an 0.70 ERA. He began his big league career in 1995 and has spent his entire time with the Yankees.
Rivera made just nine appearances last season before he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on May 3, and he had surgery on June 12. Rivera returned to his native Panama earlier this week on a personal matter.
The Rivera era with the Yankees almost got derailed during spring training 1996, when some in the organization were not happy with the play of Jeter, then a rookie, at shortstop. After an injury to veteran Tony Fernandez, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner held meetings to consider trading Rivera to Seattle for veteran shortstop Felix Fermin.
“The Boss was honestly considering it, and forced us to have some serious conversions about it” Cashman said. “It was a fight to convince the Boss to stand down and not force us to do a deal. Thankfully we didn’t do that deal, the Boss listened, backed down, made us go through the fire drill, and that was as close as we ever came to trading Mariano.”
As for the future, Rivera wants to take time off after this season to spend with his family. He envisions himself working in baseball, perhaps with minor leaguers.
“I definitely will be involved in the game some way, some aspect of the game,” he said.
Rivera maintained his announcement was a cause for celebration and should not be a worry for the Yankees, who have come to regard him as a constant.
“There’s nothing to be sad,” Rivera said. “I did everything within my power to enjoy the game, to do it well, to respect the game of baseball. Have so much joy, and no one can take that joy away from me.”