CHICAGO -- The Conference and Learning Center at U.S. Cellular Field is usually reserved for manager Robin Ventura's postgame commentary, or maybe even general manager Rick Hahn talking about a trade.
On Tuesday afternoon, approximately 2 1/2 hours before the first pitch of the White Sox 3-2 win over the Yankees, it became the location for an informal meet and greet that 13 baseball fans and their respective families will treasure for the rest of their lives.
Make that 14, since the latest stop on the Mariano Rivera farewell tour was clearly just as important to the game's all-time saves leader as everyone else in attendance.
In his last year in the Majors before retiring, the Yankees' closer, along with Yankees media relations director Jason Zillo, came up with an idea to make this season something different than the requisite and deserved honors at each ballpark. They searched for a far more personal connection to the fans and team personnel than Rivera simply standing at home plate as his name is announced amid standing ovations.
So Rivera meets with a representative group that the home team puts together at each ballpark and not only takes questions but asks them. He did so in a moving and entertaining discourse that lasted 40 minutes on Tuesday. It's a seemingly one-of-a-kind program for one of baseball's all-time greats, whom Ventura described as a better person than he is a player.
"It has been wonderful -- not the farewell, but the opportunity I have to share with the fans," Rivera said. "To share with those fans behind the scenes that nobody sees, those are the ones I've been enjoying. The rest is great, but I'm enjoying what I'm doing with the fans."
"Just being able to ask him questions and hear about his perspective and his approach to the game, it really just reinforces everything that I've read about him and heard about him," said Irv Kagan, who was one of Tuesday's invited guests, bringing along his wife and one of his three sons. "It's amazing."
Kagan works at Good-To-Go-Food, a catering business that has offered fresh sandwiches, salads and healthy food items to stores throughout Chicago for over 22 years. He also is a lifelong Yankees fan who grew up 10 minutes from Yankee Stadium.
Other guests on Tuesday included Roy Rivas, a longtime White Sox chef; Jose Diaz, a White Sox assistant groundskeeper; and Austin Richie, a member of the White Sox Amateur City Elite youth baseball program, who stood up and shook Rivera's hand before asking his question, flashing a broad smile all the while. There was also Sara Gonzalez, a member of the White Sox Volunteer Corps; Israel Del Toro, a member of the U.S. Air Force who served in Afghanistan; and Joe and Gail Bosch, who became well known for holding up a 30-foot banner in support of New York when the Yankees resumed baseball in Chicago after 9/11.
As they sat in a circle around Rivera, with the right-hander sitting in front of the table behind which most interview subjects sit, one by one they introduced themselves and told Rivera what brought them there. Rivera was asked about his most memorable games, some of his toughest times on the field and what he planned to do after retiring, and he was told by Kagan that one of the reasons he was there was because Kagan's sons had a baseball obsession.
"I've brainwashed them all as Yankees fans," laughed Kagan, whose family lives in Chicago.
"You did it right," the soft-spoken Rivera said with a smile.
Ultimately, this session was about fans getting to meet a baseball legend who took time to take pictures with each one and presented them with autographed baseballs.
They would get to recognize Rivera again about an hour later when the White Sox honored the closer on the field with a framed scorecard from his first appearance at Comiskey Park on July 4, 1995, when Rivera struck out 11 over eight innings in a rare start. Rivera was also given a photo collage from his save in Chicago on Sept. 19, 2001 -- the Yankees' second game back after the atrocities in New York -- and a donation in Rivera's name to the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
But it didn't seem like a player chatting with fans. This moment looked like a group of friends sitting around, talking about life and baseball.
"Who has ever heard of another athlete who is retiring or otherwise doing something like this?" Kagan said. "And taking the time to talk to people and learn about them and share some of what he's about as well -- he has just been tremendous."
"Most of us put our baseball idols on these pedestals, God-like," said Del Toro, who was joined by his wife and son and has endured more than 120 surgeries after more than 90 percent of his body was burned when his Humvee was hit by an improvised explosive device eight years ago. "They are just normal, everyday people like us and act just like us. It's so awesome to see a ballplayer like that. Down to Earth. It gives little kids someone to look up to besides their dads. It's an awesome experience."