Rivera's roots shaping his baseball farewell
Recalling his upbringing in Panama, legendary closer thanking those behind the scenes
Mariano Rivera has never forgotten where he has come from.
And so it is, as he puts the finishing touches on a baseball career bound to take him to the Hall of Fame, Rivera chooses to say goodbye without the fanfare and festivities, but rather by reaching out to the grassroots of baseball, the so-called "little people" who do such big jobs to make baseball what it is.
With each stop on the road in this, his final season, Rivera is honored. In Colorado, he was given a check for the charity in his name. In Cleveland, the Indians and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame combined to present Rivera with a framed gold record of Metallica's "Enter Sandman," his entry song at Yankee Stadium for nearly two decades.
More important to Rivera, however, he meets a group of the home team's employees -- none of the executives -- and thanks them for the work they do in promoting baseball, applauds them for their efforts in selling tickets, and wonders, among other things, how they keep the field playable in adverse conditions.
"People always recognize the ones out front, but you folks, the people behind the scene, are the ones who are important to the game," Rivera explained to a dozen long-term Rockies employees during the Yankees' recent visit to Coors Field. "I want to take time to make sure to thank you for everything you have done for the organization and the game of baseball.
"It does not matter if you are not a fan of the New York Yankees or myself. You are fans of baseball. And that's important."
And Rivera didn't forget the people who make it all go -- the fans. Each night at Coors Field, even in the scattered rain, he would stand on the outfield side of the Rockies' dugout, signing autographs for nearly an hour for the fans who were stunned to see a superstar so approachable.
"They are the people we play the game for," Rivera said. "They are the reason we are here."
A native of the Panama city of La Chorrea, Rivera grew up in a nearby village where he said 80 percent of the families lived off the fishing industry. He was among the dreamers, fantasizing about playing soccer or baseball .
The population back home isn't wealthy, but when you grow up in poverty, you don't realize the difference. You find the basics and enjoy them.
"We would take old fishing nets, wrap them up and make baseballs," Rivera explained. "We would climb trees and find the straightest limb. That was our bat.
"I have never forgotten where I came from. It's why I am who I am. It is the basis of my life."
And it has been a good life for Mariano Rivera.
The kid from the poor fishing village has become a baseball icon, arguably as big, if not bigger, than fellow Panamanian Rodney Cline Carew, the first native of Panama to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Carew was one of the game's elite hitters.
Rivera is arguably the game's greatest closer.
And he is going out in style. After missing the bulk of the 2012 season, Rivera has come back for a final hurrah at age 43. He has given the Yanks and their fans plenty of cheer about. Rivera has shown that even at his age, and after nearly a year recovering from a knee injury, he can handle the ninth-inning challenge.
As well as a 1.56 ERA in his first 18 appearances, Rivera has converted all 16 save opportunities, increasing his Major League-record career saves total to 624, which is 23 more than Trevor Hoffman, who is No. 2 on the all-time list, and 146 more than Lee Smith, who ranks third.
Not that Rivera expected anything different. From the day he went down while shagging fly balls in Kansas City and tore the ACL in his right knee, Rivera vowed he would return for one more year. He wasn't going to limp away from the game.
"I am coming back," Rivera said at the time. "Put it down. Write it down in big letters. I'm not going down like this."
And exactly 53 weeks after the injury, Rivera shagged fly balls in the same outfield, and this time he threw 27 pitches to earn two saves.
It's the way it should have been for him.
He walked away no worse for the wear, enjoying every moment.
It's the Rivera way.
Never take anything granted. Appreciate what life brings.
That's how he's always been.
Think about it. Rivera was the setup man for John Wetteland when he first moved into the Yankees' bullpen. Wetteland left as a free agent.
Rivera wondered who the Yanks would have assume Wetteland's role.
"When they called me after they let Wetteland go, I asked them, 'Who is going to be the closer?'" he remembered. "They told me, 'That would be you.' I was not looking for that, but it was a tremendous responsibility.''
Sixteen years later, Rivera has proven he can handle that responsibility, off the field as well as on it.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.