TAMPA, Fla. -- Mariano Rivera spoke slowly at first, pausing to catch his breath and gather his thoughts. He came close to crying just once, when he looked to his right and saw that all his teammates had come to support him.
"That almost got me," he said.
He opened with a joke about the Yankees extending his contract, then turned serious and said what we all knew he would say.
He said this season, his 19th, would be his last. He said he'd lived a dream, but that the time had come to say goodbye. He hated the travel and missed his family. He'd lived his dream, accomplished more than he ever thought possible, but now he was almost ready for the next chapter of his life.
Befitting a player who has done everything with grace, poise and precision, he said all the right things on a difficult day. He said it was not a day of sadness, but it felt incomprehensibly sad for those of us who have had the honor of watching him pitch.
"It has been an honor and a privilege to wear the pinstripes," he said.
He has been one of the great figures in the history of baseball, both on the field and off. When asked how he wanted to be remembered, he said, "As someone who was there to help others."
Even now, 22 seasons after signing his first professional contract, he has spent a portion of this final Spring Training working with the Yankees' Minor Leaguers. Indeed, he said it's the ability to impact young players that will keep him involved in baseball.
"He has never changed once," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "You see a lot of players who get a lot of money and a lot of notoriety and become famous, and they change over time. He hasn't changed a bit."
Rivera has been so numbingly consistent that it's almost incomprehensible that the day is coming when the bullpen door at Yankee Stadium will open and someone else will trot in for those final three outs.
"He's irreplaceable," Cashman said. "You'll never see that again. He's going to be as hard to replace in that clubhouse as on the field."
Rivera's legacy is simple: He was the perfect player. He carried himself with dignity, worked hard and performed at an unimaginably high level for a long time.
He's No. 1 all-time in saves (608), but that's just a place to start. In 96 postseason appearances -- 96! -- he had a 0.70 ERA and made good on 42 of 47 save opportunities. He got the final out of the World Series four times and blew a save in Game 7 of the 2001 Fall Classic.
Former Yankees manager Joe Torre and his successor, Joe Girardi, rode him hard in the postseason. He went more than one inning for 31 of his 42 saves and went two full innings 14 times. He seemed indestructible.
He came up through the Minor Leagues with Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter, two other players who helped restore the greatness of the Yankees, winning four World Series in their first six seasons.
Pettitte remembers those first days when Rivera was still figuring things out. His fastball was straight, his slider nothing special.
"It was like, `Man, he'd better come up with a little bit more stuff to be able to start in this league,'" Pettitte said.
Rivera was sent to the bullpen in 1996 and found a home. And then while playing catch with teammate Ramiro Mendoza in 1997, he came up with the pitch that would change everything.
His cutter might be the single best pitch in baseball history, and in the last 16 years it has shattered bats all over the baseball world. He threw it so precisely, with such a consistent release point and found the ability to locate it.
"He's so disciplined," Pettitte said. "The consistency he brings to the ballpark every day. The mental makeup that he has. It's been incredible to see."
Cashman recalled how Rivera was almost traded to Seattle for shortstop Felix Fermin in 1996 because Yankees owner George Steinbrenner had doubts about whether Jeter was ready to play.
"Life with the Yankees could have changed drastically if a mistake had been made there," Cashman said.
Rivera had confided to Girardi and others a few weeks ago that this season would be his last. Girardi suspected as much when Rivera entered his office one day.
"Mo doesn't come in my office for too many things," Girardi said, smiling. "Very seldom does he get in trouble."
For this final season, Rivera has asked the Yankees to find him people in each Major League city who have a love for the game. Perhaps fans who drive great distances to see a game. Or maybe an usher or a vendor.
He simply wants to thank them and to tell them that he appreciates how they've made baseball better.
Plenty of people will be saying the same thing about Rivera.
"It's amazing what this man has done," Girardi said. "What one man can mean to an organization."
Rivera said he dreamed that this final season will end with him getting the final out of a World Series. All things considered, it would be appropriate.
On the other hand, there's no appropriate way to end a perfect story.
"The best thing was the Lord blessing me with this uniform," Rivera said, "and I have been thankful for every minute. The day I throw my last pitch, I will be more proud than anything that the Lord allowed me to wear this uniform."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.