NEW YORK -- Mariano Rivera was in his third season in 1997, when, under the direction of Commissioner Bud Selig, Jackie Robinson's No. 42 was retired across Major League Baseball in an unprecedented tribute. When the Yankees closer throws his final pitch this season, he will do so as the last active player to be assigned the number.
Though he was given the number by chance as a rookie, Rivera has developed a deep appreciation for Robinson's accomplishments. On Tuesday, he had plenty of company in proudly wearing No. 42, as all members of the Yankees and D-backs donned the digits as part of Jackie Robinson Day. "It's a privilege and an honor for everybody to be wearing the number," Rivera said. "Me being the last player to wear it, it's a challenge to keep the legacy that Mr. Jackie did, not only what he went through on the field, but off the field. The kind of person that he was, it's great."
The Yankees were off Monday, which was the 66th anniversary of April 15, 1947, the day Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, breaking baseball's color barrier as the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues.
All Major League players wore No. 42 on Monday in tribute, and all Yankees and D-backs players and on-field personnel wore No. 42 on Tuesday at Yankee Stadium to celebrate Robinson's legacy. Two Jackie Robinson Foundation scholars were also honored during pregame ceremonies.
"It's a special night," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I think any time you get a chance to put on the No. 42 to support what Jackie Robinson stood for, to support what he went through and all the difficulties that he had to face, I think it's special.
"It's an honor to be able to wear this number. Obviously, Mo is the only one that gets to do it on an everyday basis now, but I really appreciate getting an opportunity to do it."
While Rivera obviously acknowledges Robinson in his own way during each game, Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano also is forever linked with the Hall of Famer. Cano's father, former big league pitcher Jose Cano, named his son after the Dodgers star, and Cano has selected uniform No. 24 -- which is 42 reversed -- in Robinson's honor.
"I can't really explain all the good feelings I have when I see that No. 42, and I have the chance to wear it during the season," Cano said. "The person that wears that number was the one that opened the door for us.
"It's special for myself -- not only me, but Dominicans and Latin American players. The way he handled himself is unbelievable. Honestly, I don't know if I would have had the same courage."
Yankees ace CC Sabathia is also well versed in Robinson's struggles and triumphs, having become familiar with the story at a young age.
"My grandfather talked about Jackie Robinson all the time," Sabathia said. "He was his favorite player. I grew up with Jackie Robinson as a strong presence in my house. It makes you feel proud. I get excited when I get a chance to wear it. It's the reason why I'm able to play."
Rivera said that he attended a screening of the recently released film "42" and "loved it."
"I bet that it's not even close [in terms] of what he went through, but it's amazing," Rivera said. "I think that the Lord -- I don't think; I know -- places people in the right positions. I think that he was the right person to do it because to not fight back, it was hard. I don't know what kind of human being will not try to do that, but he did tremendous, and that's why we're talking about him."
The film depicts enough of Robinson's story that viewers come away with a sense of the ugly racism he was confronted with during that 1947 season.
"He had to be strong," Sabathia said. "I know for sure, 100 percent, that I wouldn't have been able to go through that, living in those times and being able to try to play baseball and perform at the same time."
Robinson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962 and passed away in '72. His memory lives on in initiatives such as the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which was founded by his widow, Rachel, in '73 to provide education and leadership development opportunities for minority students and has benefited more than 1,400 young men and women.
"I'm extremely proud of what Mrs. Robinson has been doing for all these years to keep the legacy alive in everything that she has accomplished," Rivera said. "It's amazing. I'm deeply, deeply honored and proud of the job that she and her family have done."