TORONTO — Mariano Rivera is giving fans plenty of memories on the field in his farewell season, with 38 more saves to add to push his all-time leading total to 646. But his final act is about so much more than just statistics.
Rivera is quite simply one of baseball's greatest ambassadors. He is the last man who will ever wear No. 42 on his uniform, as it will be retired for good in honor of Jackie Robinson once Sandman exits for the final time.
I've been on hand for some of Rivera's greatest moments (think World Series clinchers in 2000 and 2009) and some of his lowest (think Game Seven of the 2001 World Series in Arizona or Game Four of the 2004 ALCS in Boston). Win or lose, he is about the most gracious athlete you can ever hope to talk to. You don't take it for granted.
Many great athletes in their final season have farewell tours. But Rivera, one of the unique players the game has ever produced because of the dominance of his unique position, has added his own touch.
Tuesday afternoon in a third-floor conference room at Rogers Centre, Rivera had another “Mo-Ment of Thanks” session with a group of 20 Toronto Blue Jays employees. Rivera has done this in each city this year, meeting with otherwise unheralded employees to give them his appreciation.
Rivera sat and playfully answered their questions for nearly an hour. It was a remarkable scene, a legend of sport enjoying unvarnished byplay with common employees who otherwise work in anonymity.
“It has been a privilege for me to be in baseball,” said Rivera, dressed in his black batting practice T-shirt with “New York” emblazoned across the front. “I want to make sure I say thank you to all of those involved. I want to make sure I thank you guys for what you do in baseball, to help us prepare for every day.”
Jason Zillo, the Yankees' director of media relations, briefly moderates the opening of each session and then turns things over to Rivera.
“Mariano is a man of great faith but I know he feels baseball is a very communal experience that brings together all kinds of people from all types of backgrounds and religions and races,” Zillo said. “The one thing everybody pretty much shares is they have a passion for baseball.”
Rivera has held these meet-and-greets in each city the Yankees have visited this season and they have provided many memorable moments.
In Oakland, Rivera surprised a 24-year mailroom employee with a pizza delivery. He met with military families in Tampa and San Diego and his Fenway Park chat included brothers who shielded each other and each lost a leg in the Boston Marathon bombing.
Teams have also provided numerous gifts in on-field ceremonies, highlighted by the rocking chair made of broken bats he received in Minnesota. (The Blue Jays will honor Rivera the next time he's in town, Sept. 17-19.)
There have been several emotional moments over the course of the season, including the Boston brothers and the Kansas City meeting that included the family of a 10-year-old who was crushed to death in March by a falling sign outside the terminal of the airport in Birmingham, Ala.
Another came Tuesday when Rivera was asked his memories of late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
Steinbrenner passed away in 2010 and Rivera was the player who placed roses on home plate during a pregame ceremony three days after his death. Rivera said the last couple years of The Boss' life were difficult, as he was limited to visiting the team when they were near his home in Tampa.
“Someone would always come to get me and say, 'Mo, The Boss is looking for you,' '' Rivera said. “When I got there, he'd say, 'How are you doing?' I'd say, 'I'm OK, Boss.' He'd say, 'You OK? Feel good?' and I'd say, 'Yes, Boss. Feel good.' And he'd say, 'Remember I love you' and I'd say, 'I love you too, Boss.' ''
Rivera said a particular memory came after the Game Seven crusher in 2001. I was in the Yankees' clubhouse that night in Phoenix and saw a stone-faced Steinbrenner walk slowly around the room. Some players talked about the embrace Steinbrenner and Rivera shared before the doors opened and Rivera recounted the scene Tuesday.
“The first one that came to my locker was The Boss,” Rivera said, speaking slowly and in a hushed tone. “He looked at me and I looked straight at his face and I said, 'Boss, I gave my best and my best wasn't good enough tonight.' And he said, 'I know.' He hugged me and I hugged him.
“To me that was George Steinbrenner. If there was something I could change, I wish he could be alive so I can say thank you for all he did for me.”
Overall, however, the mood was light. Asked his post-retirement plans, Rivera broke up the room when he turned to Zillo and said, “What are you guys gonna do?”
Markwell Ottolino-Perry, who serves as the Blue Jays mascot “Ace,” asked Rivera for his favorite mascot. Rivera had a good laugh describing the travails of the guy who dressed as the Mariner Moose in Seattle, who once broke his leg while riding a scooter on duty.
A ballpark policeman asked Rivera what he does for fun.
“I love to fish but to tell you the truth, I love to be home,” Rivera said. “I enjoy being home, just sitting there doing nothing. I enjoy that. When it's snowing, cold, I don't mind sitting there in my pajamas doing nothing.”
Asked about the genesis of his famous cutter, Rivera told the oft-recounted story of how he learned it while playing catch with former Yankee Ramiro Mendoza. He added that it drove his catcher and current manager crazy.
“Joe Girardi was the catcher at that time and he would say 'Throw the ball straight,' '' Rivera said with a big smile before screaming his mock response. “I said, 'I'm throwing it straight. You just catch the ball because it's moving. I don't know where it's going.' It's funny now but at the time it was hard.”
When the session ended, the employees applauded. They got individual pictures taken with Rivera and autographed baseballs. Quite an afternoon.
“It's absolutely amazing he would take the time to do this,” said Susan Woollard, a 23-year employee who works at the ballpark nurse's station. “It shows so much insight and caring for all the people involved. I didn't expect it to touch me so much.”
Howard Starkman, the Blue Jays' omnipresent vice president of special projects, has seen a lot since he was one of the first five employees hired by the team after its birth in 1976. This hour in time was pretty unique.
“He wanted to give back, didn't ask for anything,” Starkman said. “He was really good, very thankful to the people here and genuinely wanted to meet them. It's a real memory for them and most of those people don't get that kind of memory.”