ST. PETERSBURG -- Bill Werts spends most of his time at Tropicana Field working in the media dining room or, toward the end of each home game, taking in the final innings from his wheelchair in the press box.
But the 67-year-old Vietnam War veteran, wheelchair-bound because of multiple sclerosis, ventured into the bowels of the stadium early Tuesday evening to join 16 veterans from Tampa's James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in a small equipment room, where they met with Yankees closer Mariano Rivera for about half an hour. The group included veterans of the Vietnam War, Gulf War, current military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one man who served in the Army during World War II.
"It's amazing. They're sacrificing," Rivera said. "We go on the field to play. They go on the field to defend us, fight for us, give their life for us. We need more things to be done for these people after they finish. We've seen people that are injured. What gets done for them? We need to get more stuff done."
Rivera talked to the assembled crowd, which also included family members and hospital staffers, then answered questions and took pictures with the veterans. He signed a baseball for each of them, with Tuesday's date below his signature.
He told them about his decision to retire after this season and spoke about his long and successful career. He asked about their families and personal histories, and listened as they all told him what he's meant to them.
"You appreciate [their words]," he said. "They tell you, 'Hey, we appreciate what you do for baseball, we appreciate what you do for your team. I'm glad that you're retiring, because we don't want you to face the team.'"
Werts was the first on Tuesday to voice such an opinion. He's worked at Tropicana Field for 13 years and watched Rivera rack up 60 saves and a 1.73 ERA against the Rays. He told Rivera straight up, "As a Rays fan, I'm so happy you're retiring, because you're so very good."
Rivera laughed and thanked him.
This is what Rivera's farewell tour has been about, he said, and why he sat in a folding chair fielding questions a few hours before the Yankees took the field to play the Rays. He wants to recognize and thank as many fans as possible in each city he visits during his final season.
"I wanted to say thanks. I wanted to be able to say thanks to those fans that have been loyal to baseball and to their teams," he said. "Not necessarily to the Yankees. I hope everybody was a Yankee fan, but they're not. I appreciate that they are fans of baseball.
"You appreciate what those people think about you. ... I like to hear what they think, what do they see, what do they see behind the scenes, what do they think about."
His interest wasn't lost on those visiting from the veterans' hospital. Consider Edward Tomassine, the 93-year-old veteran of World War II who served under Gen. George Patton, took part in the campaign in North Africa and remembered watching lefty Joe Page pitch for the Yankees in the 1940s. He'd never met a Major Leaguer -- "just seen them on TV" -- but he got a chance to speak to one of the game's most accomplished players on Tuesday.
"When somebody looks at you in the eye and they speak to you and take the time to do this -- [Rivera] is a busy guy -- it's pretty fabulous," said Mary Donovan, a recreation therapist at the hospital.
Rivera has experienced similar feelings in the earliest stops of his farewell tour. He's already met with stadium staff and season-ticket holders in Detroit and Cleveland, and one thing stood out to him after speaking with the veterans in St. Petersburg.
"I have learned doing these things that there are people that care," he said. "Perhaps people that sit behind the desk 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.'"
People like Werts, for example. He'd never met Rivera, but he always thought the closer had a special "aura" as a pitcher and as a person, and Rivera was everything he'd always expected.
"He was. He was more," Werts said. "But I meant it when I said we're glad he's retiring."