Mariano Rivera announced he will retire after this season. (USA Today Sports)
Exit humility, grace, poise. Exit precision. Exit domination.
Exit the man – the ballplayer – you'd like your sons and daughters to admire. Exit the most famous number of all, 42.
In a news conference in Tampa that was, in spite of his wishes otherwise, sad for all the proper reasons, Mariano Rivera confirmed Saturday morning he would retire after the 2013 season. Sitting beside his wife and two sons, Rivera, after 18 seasons and 608 saves, explained, "It's not in me anymore."
At 43, Rivera, who seemingly never tired, is weary of the game's burdens. The life baseball once proposed to a gangly Panamanian boy with a loose arm and relentless resolve had kept its promise, as Rivera had to it. And so he bowed his head, thanked his god and his teammates, had it catch in his throat for just a moment, and prepared to say good-bye.
"Why now?" Rivera posed. "Now is the time."
Then, softer, "Now is the time."
"After this year," he said, "I will be retired. I want you guys to hear it from my mouth. Now, you're hearing it from me. It's official. After this year, I will be retired. It has been wonderful. It has been a wonderful, great journey."
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Nearby, Andy Pettitte watched with a small grin. He, too, had retired once, then found irresistible the pull of the game and its signature franchise. Beside Pettitte, Derek Jeter listened stoically, his arms crossed over his chest. His time is coming, as well. In the room, Reggie Jackson, an army of men in New York Yankees uniforms, those who had watched Rivera grow up, or grown up with him.
Rivera would have been done by now if not for the knee injury that had him carried from a field in Kansas City. When the final moment came, he would walk. He had the surgery, did the work and, body and mind willing, will throw a pitch, tip his cap and call it a career.
The man who taught a baseball to perform as he pleased would run his career, his life, with the same inflexibility.
"The last game, I hope, will be throwing the last pitch of the World Series," he said.
Until that pitch is thrown, and whether or not he throws it, Rivera will take one last look around. And we, at him.
More than a decade ago, in a cinderblock building that passed for a visiting clubhouse in Clearwater, Fla., maybe a dozen reporters had gathered around a young Panamanian pitcher hoping to make the Yankees. His name was Ramiro Mendoza. His English was minimal. As the questions came, he stood uncomfortably (and, in his underwear, possibly quite self-consciously) and struggled with his answers.
Rivera (also in his underwear) pushed through the crowd to Mendoza's side, placing his arm around Mendoza's shoulders and whispering to him in Spanish. Mendoza smiled gratefully. For the remainder of the interview, Mendoza spoke and Rivera translated. It was a small gesture, one that he probably would not recall, but these were the moments that defined – and still define – Rivera. In a room full of bilinguals, only Rivera could not let the moment pass if it did not have to.
Asked Saturday of what he will leave behind, Rivera ignored the obvious.
"I don't feel I'm the greatest of all time," he said.
He praised his teammates instead, the men beside him all these years, the players who made all those ninth innings his.
He hoped to be remembered, he said, as, "A player who was always there for others. Who makes them better. Who didn't think about myself at all."
"I was there for others," he said almost to himself.
The game won't even pause, of course. Indeed, when the news of Rivera's retirement announcement arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, former big-leaguer Moises Alou could barely stifle a chuckle. He said he'd believe Rivera – a healthy, effective Rivera – would retire and stay retired when he saw it.
"That Roger Clemens thing," Alou called it. "Keep coming back and coming back. Once you're a baseball player, that's the only thing you know how to do.
"I'll wait and see what happens this year before Mariano retires."
Rivera insisted there'd be none of that, no matter his numbers, no matter if the last pitch is at the end of September or the end of October. Pettitte squirmed.
"Andy, man," he laughed, "what's wrong with you?"
"I have just a few bullets left," Rivera said, "and I'm going to use them well. I did what I love. I did it with passion. So I won't do it like that. I want to stay at home, close the door and do what's next."
Beside him, Rivera's wife Clara smiled. His boys joined her.
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