ST. PETERSBURG - He is the last major-league baseball player to regularly wear 42, Jackie Robinson's number. There is poetry in that, dignity, class and professionalism, too. Mariano Rivera, 43, baseball's greatest reliever and one of its finest men, is retiring after this season. The Yankees closer, with more saves than anyone in history, is closing it out. That meant not stepping down after he blew out his right knee last May while shagging batting practice fly balls in Kansas City. That meant coming back in 2013, going out on his terms, on top, same Mo as ever. And Tuesday, before the Yankees played the Rays at Tropicana Field, it meant another stop on Rivera's farewell tour, a truly touching one.
In a storage area down the left-field line, not far from the Yankees clubhouse, a meeting area was arranged, blue curtains and folding chairs. Some of those who gathered didn't need the folding chairs. They had their wheelchairs. They were patients from the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, they were the real deal, our true heroes, veterans young and old, from too many wars — and they were baseball fans. Mariano Rivera wanted to meet them. “I don't want to go without saying thank you,” Rivera told them. “This is a dream come true,” said navy veteran Manny Fernandez, who grew up in New York. “He's an amazing pitcher, but a more amazing person.” Rivera plans to make a stop like this in each of the stadiums he visits in his final season, talking to fans, or simply folks who work behind the scenes for ball clubs. In Cleveland, he met with longtime Indians employees as well as John Adams, the super fan who for 40 years has beat a drum in the bleachers at Indians games. The Rays helped set up Tuesday's meeting. The tour is Rivera's idea. He worked with Jason Zillo, Yankees director of communications and media relations. “This is kind of unprecedented,” Zillo said. “It really fits who he is,” said Yankees pitching coach and former Rays manager Larry Rothschild. “It's unique.” Tuesday, Rivera took questions from the veterans. He wanted to know about them. He smiled for pictures and handshakes and gave every one of his new friends an autographed baseball. Among them was World War II veteran Edward Tomassine, 93, who fought under George Patton in North Africa and Sicily. And a woman of a son blinded in battle, who told Rivera, “Thank you for the love you have.” “We go on the field to play,” Rivera said. “They go on the field to defend us, to fight for us, to give their life for us.” There has always been more to the man than the game. He has built churches in his native Panama, and has helped renovate a church in New Rochelle, near New York City. He wants to spread the word after he stops mystifying hitters with that cut fastball he has always called a gift from God. “We need to be there and talk to people about Christ,” Rivera said. “That's my call. That's what I need to do.” Rivera has 614 career saves, and 61 have come against the Rays. He hasn't really changed. He didn't want Kansas City to be the end. “I wanted to go out not feeling sorry or people feeling sorry for me,” Rivera said. And he wanted to say thank you. Bill Werts met Mariano Rivera before Tuesday's game. Bill has worked behind the scenes for the Rays for 13 seasons, helping run the media dining room. He's 67 and he served in Vietnam. Bill has been in a wheelchair for 10 years, multiple sclerosis. He's a lifelong baseball fan. He has Jackie Robinson's autograph. “As a Rays fan, I'm so happy you're retiring,” Bill told Mo. Everyone laughed. “But we've enjoyed watching you. … You're a wonderful man, a good man. We're sorry to see you go.” They posed for a photo. “God bless you, Bill,” Mo said. Before Tuesday's game, Mariano Rivera shagged batting practice fly balls, same as always. At the end of the game, he gave up a home run to Evan Longoria, but still closed it out, another save against the Rays. Bill Werts shook his head and smiled. “My new best friend — and he does it to us again.”