TAMPA, Fla. -- They rose in unison, the thousands of sun-drenched fans lining the grandstands this week at George M. Steinbrenner Field, warmly saluting yet another relatively uneventful Grapefruit League inning turned in by Mariano Rivera.
Any lingering questions about the health of Rivera's surgically repaired right knee have been answered, and with his trusty cutter proving to be just as lethal a weapon as ever against professional bats, the 43-year-old closer actually looks like he could do this forever.
He won't, of course, and that's why the sendoff celebration that started here in Tampa will continue in every big league city the Yankees visit from now until the last pitch of New York's final game is thrown. If there is any poetic justice, that baseball will sail almost effortlessly out of Rivera's right hand.
"The last game, I hope, will be throwing the last pitch in the World Series," Rivera said. "That's how I envision my last game of my last pitch on the mound. Winning the World Series -- that would be my ambition."
Rivera made that much clear when he signed a one-year, $10 million deal with the Yankees over the winter, saying that he was coming back because he expected to win. He has already proven victorious in one battle, not permitting a May 3, 2012, mishap on the warning track of Kauffman Stadium to write the final chapter of his storied career.
The intensive rehabilitation following the devastating ACL injury -- several times per week with a Manhattan-based therapist, with grueling work behind the scenes Rivera would rather not discuss -- was fueled by the security in Rivera's mind that he was coming back to end the tale his way.
"I have given everything, and the tank is almost empty," Rivera said. "The little gas I have left is everything for this year. After that, I'll empty everything. There's nothing left. I did everything, and I'm proud of it. That's why it's time."
Rivera had hopes of coming back in September 2012 to help the Yankees, and he said that if he had been able to, he would not be wearing pinstripes this year -- reclaiming the closer's role from Rafael Soriano for the postseason run would have burned those precious last drops of fuel.
It probably works out better this way, that baseball fans should be guaranteed at least 162 games to properly thank Rivera -- arguably the largest reason the Yankees' dynasty is what we think of it -- for his long and meritorious service and to wish him well as he moves on to his post-baseball endeavors.
"I think we all knew the day would come," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I'm actually appreciative that we get to enjoy him for one more year. A lot of people thought it might happen last year, but I'm glad we get to enjoy him one more year."
After repeated hints, Rivera made his intentions public in a March 9 news conference at Steinbrenner Field, joined by his wife, Clara, and two of their three sons. Rivera opened the event by joking that he'd accepted a two-year contract extension from general manager Brian Cashman, and a grin spread across Cashman's face.
Would we think of the Yankees, the dominant "Team of the Decade" under Joe Torre from 1996-2000, as what they were if not for Rivera? Or, as Bobby Cox has opined, would his Braves have been in command if the Yankees didn't have No. 42 coming out of the bullpen?
"We've been able to have so much success over the past few decades because of him," Andy Pettitte said. "What he's been able to do is incredible."
We'll all adjust to seeing a Yankees roster without Rivera in 2014, but it almost happened in 1996. Steinbrenner was concerned about going into the season with raw 22-year-old shortstop Derek Jeter, and the Mariners reached out to then-GM Bob Watson, offering light-hitting Felix Fermin in exchange for either Rivera or reliever Bob Wickman.
"The Boss was honestly considering it; forced us to have some serious conversations about it," said Cashman, who was then the Yanks' assistant GM. "We were having the conversations in Joe Torre's office, and it was a fight to convince The Boss to stand down and not force us to do a deal that none of us were recommending."
Fermin was released by the Mariners in April and had just 16 more big league at-bats, while Rivera has gone on to record a Major League-record 608 saves, plus a postseason record of 42 more when it counted the most.
That story should be Exhibit A in the handbook issued to every aspiring GM, that the best moves are sometimes the ones that are not made. Rivera will leave the game having logged saves against every club except the Pirates (and he picked up wins in both of his appearances against the Bucs).
"Thankfully, we didn't do that deal," Cashman said. "The Boss listened, backed down, made us go through the fire drill, and that was as close as we ever came to trading Mariano."
Truth be told, Rivera, the son of a Panamanian fisherman, has made a conscious effort to stay humble to his roots; he needs no more accolades. He would prefer to hand some out.
At Rivera's request, the Yankees are working on plans to honor different people at each of their road stops this season, giving thanks to ticket-takers, ushers, vendors, fans and other unheralded men and women who have helped the game over the decades.
"Mo has made it very clear to us that they don't have to be Mariano Rivera fans," Yankees director of media relations Jason Zillo said. "Honestly, they don't have to be Yankees fans. As long as they share his love and his passion for baseball, he wants to thank them."
Rivera feels that the game has given him enough, but he will still be the center of attention for many days and nights this summer, looking up at thousands of applauding patrons each time he plies his trade. And Rivera should appreciate every moment of the sendoff, because he has certainly earned it.
"We have fans all over the world," Rivera said. "I want to give a chance to be able to come and now be able to say goodbye to them. Being there. That's all. I'm not hoping for nothing else, just hoping to do my job well and be able to say goodbye to the fans."