Mariano Rivera ready to enjoy final season

TAMPA, Fla. — Near the end of a 25-minute address that began a season-long farewell, the irreplaceable Mariano Rivera, seated at a stage, turned to his right to offer an invitation to maximize time. Close by, New York Yankees players and management — some sitting and others standing three rows deep in a corner — gathered to learn that baseball’s greatest closer has one last season left in his brutally efficient right arm.

To that point, Rivera’s retirement announcement Saturday morning at Steinbrenner Field had touched on a variety of reflections. The finality of the message itself was delivered between pauses by saying, “It’s not too easy when you come to a decision like this.” An explanation of the timing, which was described as, simply, “I have given everything. The tank is almost empty. The little gas that I have left is everything for this year.” Ambitions for a final victory lap, which is envisioned by “Throwing the last pitch in the World Series.”

But Rivera’s most telling declaration came after all those words, and the that theme will be extended throughout the summer during his farewell tour in pinstripes. As he turned to his teammates, the 43-year-old granted this advice learned over 18 seasons with the Yankees: Savor it all. Take no inning as a given. Each day on the field, each day in that venerable uniform, is a gift.

“Every minute that you play the game, enjoy it, because you don’t know when it will be the last time,” Rivera said. “It’s short. Do your best and enjoy.”

The Yankees will have one more summer to enjoy Major League Baseball’s all-time saves leader. In reality, they’re on borrowed time. Rivera hinted that last season would have been his last if not for a torn right anterior cruciate ligament sustained last May that limited him to nine appearances and 8.1 innings pitched.

Leaving in such a way, though, would have felt unsatisfying for him and the larger baseball community. Hobbling into the horizon would have been an improper exit for someone with 608 career saves and 42 more in the postseason, for someone who has redefined his position in a way that likely won’t be replicated in New York or elsewhere for many years, if at all.

Consider Rivera’s impact: Trevor Hoffman stands second in all-time saves with 601, but no one else has more than Lee Smith’s 478. Brad Lidge is second in postseason saves with 18. Behind Rivera, no other Yankees player has had more saves than Dave Righetti’s 224.

Those totals reveal his mental strength as much as his physical and athletic gifts. A closer is part lion, part poker maven. His role requires him to be ruthless and efficient, yes, as well as controlled and calculating. Rivera, at times, has been all.

Despite his consistency, there were glimpses Saturday that showed he’s eager to enter a new phase of life. Seated next to him in a pavilion near Steinbrenner Field were his wife, Clara, and sons Jaziel and Jafet. Rivera spoke about the day’s emotions and how there should be no sadness with his choice, which was made before he arrived for spring training.
 
“My family’s happy,” Rivera said as Clara smiled, “because they want me home.”

Soon, he will be. The upcoming months will be spent trying to frame Rivera’s legacy. It’s a daunting task — his five World Series titles and the Yankees’ 639-42 record in games in which he has had a save opportunity show why — but his contributions off the mound would be a fine place to start.

In many ways, Rivera is the anti-Alex Rodriguez. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman called Rivera “a giver,” and the closer spoke about a desire to mentor minor-league players after he walks from the mound. The major-league grind has become too much, but it’s clear Rivera’s heart for the game remains.

Perhaps his career’s most important development is this: An uncommon rise failed to change him. Instead, fame presented a platform to pay his gifts forward, to inspire younger talent, to stand above the pitfalls of riches and remain true to an approach to his craft that made him admired by his peers and bosses alike. That’s no simple accomplishment, especially for a player who spent his entire career in one of the most scrutinized uniforms in sports.

“Seeing everything he did day in and day out, playing catch and doing all the other stuff, you never knew if he lost a game or won a game,” Yankees right-hander Joba Chamberlain told FOXSportsFlorida.com. “It’s just the consistency of the way he handled everything that he did. That’s the biggest thing I take away.”

Added Yankees manager Joe Girardi: “I think the greatest lesson you can take from Mo is how he’s done it with class and humility. Not how great he’s been, but in that greatness, how he’s handled it.”

There will be more chances to learn from Rivera, of course, but his countdown began Saturday. It was a first look back, a chance to begin to grasp what one man can mean to a franchise in a transient era.

Much like Chipper Jones’ experience last year, this season will serve as a nationwide curtain call. It will be a chance to recognize a humble star who grew from a raw talent with a “pretty straight fastball” and “not a great slider” in 1995, as left-hander Andy Pettitte remembers it, to his position’s best. It will be a chance to recognize a rarity.

On Saturday afternoon, Yankees infielder Derek Jeter knew as much. In a quiet clubhouse, he stood near his stall as a game against the Atlanta Braves continued outside. Across the room, a small television showed Rivera work through three hitters in the top of the fifth inning. He struck out two.

“He’s going to be hard to replace on the field,” Jeter said, glancing ahead. “How do you talk about replacing someone that has done a job better than anyone else?”

In time, the Yankees will learn that’s a question with no answer.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.