ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The compliment for Mariano Rivera came early in a presentation that showed the closer’s class, a display as genuine as the looks he received. Rivera, meeting with veterans at Tropicana Field, gazed into the small group and shared his baseball passion.
This is how the New York Yankees’ star right-hander wants to be remembered after he retires at season’s end: As a giver, as someone whose love for his sport was clear and shared by others in all roles within a league that made him the best of all time. As Rivera answered questions from the veterans, a man in a wheelchair looked toward him and offered praise. To both, this was a moment to keep close.
“It’s a pleasure and an honor to meet the greatest relief pitcher,” said Edward Tomassine, 93, a World War II veteran.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Rivera said.
“I’ve seen some good ones,” Tomassine continued. “Johnny Murphy, Joe Page, Wilcy Moore.”
“You’ve seen a lot. How old are you, sir?”
“God bless you. That’s amazing. That’s amazing. Thank you being there. Thank you for watching. Thank you for being a fan of baseball.”
On Tuesday, Rivera met with 16 veterans from the Tampa-based James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital, before the Yankees’ 4-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays. It was part of the 43-year-old’s season-long farewell across the majors, which includes scheduled meetings with fans at each ballpark the Yankees visit throughout their campaign. It’s a gesture distinctly Rivera: Selfless, memorable, one that makes an impact.
The event began with a short word of thanks from the closer, followed by questions from some of the 16 veterans. The audience included a mix of allegiances, with people in Yankees apparel sitting alongside Rays fans. But such an image is how Rivera envisioned this all along: People joined not by team color, but by a love for the game. A community.
“I have learned doing these things that there are people that care,” Rivera said. “Perhaps people that sit behind the desk (at a stadium) and pass tickets or check tickets, they’re aware of what’s going on. That’s beautiful, and I have learned that. People out there, no matter what, they’re here. Rain, storm, cold, heat, they’re here. They’re behind their desk, and besides doing a job, they love it. That’s why I love to hear all those stories and tell them, ‘Thank you.’”
The presentation with the veterans was one of many Rivera, who has 614 career regular-season saves, will hold throughout the season. Those in the audience included people who fought in World War II, Vietnam, the Gulf War and current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many were coping with a variety of ailments, including post-traumatic stress disorder and other physical issues.
Previously, Rivera had met with season-ticket holders and stadium staff members in Cleveland and Detroit. He expressed a desire to hold the nationwide campaign on March 9 in Tampa, Fla., the morning he announced his intention to retire.
During his talk with veterans, Rivera spoke about a number of topics: his plans post-retirement, his desire to expand himself outside baseball, his memories of Yogi Berra and George Steinbrenner. There were laughs and claps. There was a sense of camaraderie, a bond.
“I love you not because you play,” a woman told him early in the event. “I love you for the heart that you have and for the love you have for the Lord.”
“Thank you,” Rivera said.
“And why do you want to retire? You’re still young,” the woman continued, to laughter.
“Yeah, I consider myself a young chicken. But you know what? There’s more than baseball.”
“They have a lot years ahead for these guys,” Mary Donovan, a recreation therapist at the hospital, said later about the veterans. “They have a lot of years ahead of them to get well. This is a big step.”
It was a poignant moment for many, including Tomassine, who fought in Italy and North Africa. Before Tuesday, he had never met a major-league player. He left after speaking to one of the best.
“I’m wearing this cap,” he told Rivera, referencing a Tampa Bay hat. “But I’m a Yankee fan.”