HOUSTON -- The last day in a big league uniform for the man with the most saves in history started with an apology, as Mariano Rivera admitted that he was feeling a bit "selfish" for not taking the field as the Yankees played out the final three games of the schedule.
It concluded with Rivera at total peace, crossing the finish line of a farewell tour that started this spring and continued through cities across North America, where he was lavished with gifts and was universally praised as the best closer the game has ever seen.
Rivera has savored this wonderful 162-game journey, attempting to give back more than he has received at each stop while also fulfilling his duties in the late innings on the mound. That is done now, Rivera said, so it is finally time to go home.
"There is no sadness at all," Rivera said in the visitor's clubhouse at Minute Maid Park, having shed his road gray No. 42 jersey for the last time. "Definitely, I've been ready for this moment. I'm OK with it, I'm happy with it, and I will move on."
It would have seemed anticlimactic for Rivera to conclude his career here in Houston, in a stadium he had never pitched in during a regular-season game, and with the Yankees unable to qualify for the postseason -- the time when he shone the brightest, compiling a record 42 saves and exiting the game with a razor-sharp 0.70 ERA.
The sequence of events that took place last Thursday in New York, where Rivera retired all four batters he faced before tearfully handing the ball off to longtime teammates Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter, had been choreographed too well to spoil with another appearance.
"Simple. It's over. That's it. My season finished in New York," Rivera said.
So with another classy moment in a season that has been filled by them, Rivera apologized at the conclusion of a pregame ceremony in his honor.
"I want to leave with the game I played at Yankee Stadium on Thursday -- I want to keep that memory of mine," Rivera told a crowd of 40,542. "For that, I apologize. You guys deserved more, but I'm being a little selfish."
A five-time World Series champion, Rivera leaves the game with 652 regular-season saves, the first of which came on May 17, 1996, against the Angels.
The last came on Sept. 18 at Toronto, marking his 44th save in a season that concluded with a 2.11 ERA in 64 appearances. Indeed, his ERA at age 43 was actually a tenth of a run lower than his career ERA of 2.21.
"There's nobody -- I don't care what era you're talking about - who is ever going to do what he has done as a closer," said former Yankees manager Joe Torre, who was on hand in Houston to help send Rivera off into retirement.
In that final appearance in the Bronx last Thursday, Rivera had disappeared under the tunnel after getting two outs in the eighth inning, seeking heat treatment for his arm.
Rivera had not talked about it - in fact, manager Joe Girardi had to hear it from Jeter and Pettitte, and only after Rivera already returned to the mound - but his right forearm had been aching for some time.
His surgically repaired knee had been barking as well, but Rivera continued to push through a heavy September workload, not needing to save bullets with his club on the fringes of qualifying to press into October.
"That's just who he is," Girardi said. "He was going to do everything in his power to help us get to where we wanted to go."
A playoff appearance was not meant to be, and so when Jeter reached the mound for that instantly famous pitching change and said, "Time to go," all the emotions building inside Rivera were emptied on Pettitte's sweatshirt-clad shoulder.
"He carries himself just as he's always carried himself; a class act," Pettitte said. "That's what I would like people to know, and I hope people see that. He's just always been a great teammate, and a great friend of mine. And I love him dearly."
Two days later, when Pettitte pitched a complete game in front of his hometown crowd to author his own memorable conclusion, Rivera remarked that "going out on your own terms is the best."
He would know. After all, it took Rivera less than 24 hours to decide that the final image of his career would not be of a broken 42-year-old writhing in pain on a Kansas City warning track.
Hobbling on crutches, his right ACL torn and in need of season-ending surgery, Rivera returned to Kauffman Stadium the next day and defiantly dared reporters to "write it down in big letters" that he would return in 2013 -- a promise he made good on, and then some.
"I really believe that, in our lifetime, I don't know if we'll be able to say that about another pitcher that can do what he's done at 43," Girardi said. "I really don't. We have watched something that is truly special."
And now the show was over; the credits were rolling and the house lights came on.
Rivera pulled on his jacket and tightened a tie around his neck, doing so with complete certainty that he had made the right call. As he said last week, baseball may be what he did for a living, but it never defined Rivera as a man.
There is more for him to invest time into, beginning with the church he is restoring in suburban New Rochelle, N.Y., as well as the charitable missions his foundation is planning. Rivera said that he felt "a sense of relief," knowing that this ending was perfect.
"Like I said, I'm done," Rivera said. "And I'll stick with it."