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Bigger saves ahead

CHICAGO – In baseball's offseason, Mariano Rivera delivers trucks full of bicycles and toy cars and dolls to children in the upper reaches of Panama's Cordillera Central mountain range. Some recognize him, only because Rivera is among the most well-known people in his country. More recognize his generosity before his celebrity.

"We know that toys are only temporary because they're just material," Rivera said. "Bringing them a sense of hope – that is eternal."

Here in the United States, where he wears a New York Yankees jersey, Rivera has never been about hope. He has been the Yankees' Gibraltar, their talisman of assurance, their infallible piece amid the game's – and team's – changes. It is the dual existence he leads, pillar of certainty in one place and beacon of what can be in another, and, Rivera admits, it is what will eventually pull him away from baseball once and for all.

With poverty levels exceeding 40 percent throughout Panama and as high as 90 percent in some indigenous areas, the idea of returning home for good – to work with first lady Vivian Torrijos building churches and schools, as he has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to do, and trying to lessen the canyon-sized divide between the country's rich and poor – does tug at Rivera.

"Baseball is what I do," Rivera said, "but it's not who I am. After baseball, there's life. And what am I going to do? What God wants me to do."

While Rivera refuses to put a timetable on his retirement, he will turn 38 in November, he is in the final year of his contract and has struggled as much in this season's first six weeks as any time in his 13-year career. The 10 earned runs he has yielded are almost as many as he does in an average season. The pitch he throws almost exclusively – a 95-mph cut fastball that has sawed off more pieces of maple than a lumberjack – has lacked the bite of seasons past.

And, hey, it's not an April in New York if tabloid editors haven't tossed around the idea of burying Rivera on a back page with a NO MO headline.

"The highest compliment you can pay him is that when a couple saves get away from him, people say, 'What's wrong with him?' " Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "It's irritating, but it shows the standard he has set."

Truth is, Rivera said "there's plenty" left in his right arm, and six scoreless outings among his last seven – a tie-breaking home run that led to a loss the ugly blemish – do nothing to dispel that. Torre, and the Yankees by proxy, listen to Rivera's words as if they were canons.

Rivera's passion toward the game, he said, will influence the longevity of his career as much as any factor, and its presence remains.

"It's amazing the feeling I still get putting on this uniform," Rivera said. "It makes me proud."

Just as Rivera has done it proud. The last player to wear Jackie Robinson's No. 42, Rivera has earned himself a place in the record books with 34 postseason saves, in Yankees lore with 416 more in the regular season, plus four World Series rings, and in the Baseball Hall of Fame with the combination of it all.

"I'll keep handing him the ball," Torre said, "until he walks out the door."

Almost eight years ago, Rivera believed he would long have stepped through it by now. In the winter following the Yankees' third championship in four years, Rivera told The New York Times he planned on playing four more seasons, then retiring to minister to his Pentecostal church.

Reminded of his pledge, Rivera laughed and shook his head, as if to say, "Ah, youthful indiscretions." His sentiment, though noble, clashed with his drive.

So it's easy to wonder whether the specter of Rivera retiring really is just that: a mirage, an illusion, something that will vanish if he rips off a streak of 20 consecutive scoreless innings, of which he's still more than capable.

Twelve months of his dedication could mean infinitely more to Panama than the 100 days that comprise his offseason.

"I'm in the position where I have to give all I can," Rivera said. "I can't be stingy. Selfishness leads to an unforgiving end. There are a lot of people that need, and if you've been blessed and do nothing, you're not getting the job done.

"I love to help. This is something I'm supposed to be doing. I want to do this. I want to be able to put a smile on some kid's face."

No one in the Yankees organization wants to acknowledge that day will come. For so long they've been insulated from the helter-skelter world of a shaky ninth inning. Oh, they remember Sandy Alomar's home run in 1997, Rivera's first year as closer, that knocked the Yankees from the playoffs, and Luis Gonzalez's hit that ended the 2001 World Series, and Dave Roberts' stolen base that ruined their sheen of invincibility.

Though Rivera sports a few chinks, nobody does what he does. Not Trevor Hoffman, the San Diego Padres' maestro and baseball's all-time saves leader, who freely admits Rivera is peerless in the most literal sense. Not Jonathan Papelbon, the Boston Red Sox closer who matches Rivera's fastball velocity and comes with an equally filthy splitter. Not Dennis Eckersley, whose excellence rivaled Rivera's but whose longevity lagged, nor Gosse Gossage, whose longevity exceeded Rivera's but whose prime years couldn't match up.

There is only one Mariano Rivera, and soon enough, when his work here is done, he will return home for a far greater mission.

"While I want to be a good closer here," Rivera said, "I want to be the best closer in the kingdom of God."