There was an essential decency about Rivera that became evident as the years passed. He combined humility and confidence and a sense that he simply was using the gifts he'd been given -- not just on the baseball diamond, but to make the world a better place. Incredibly, for all he accomplished on the mound, Rivera seems positioned to make even greater contributions as a humanitarian and spokesman in this next chapter of his life.
Maybe that's why Rivera was so resolute in telling us that the time was right to leave. Maybe he simply had other things he wanted to do. Rivera was 43 on Opening Day in 2013, but age was nothing more than a number with him. Once more, he was close to perfect, saving 44 games, compiling a 2.11 ERA and making the American League All-Star Team for the 13th time. Yet he never wavered about it being his final season.
"I have no more bullets," Rivera said. "I have used them all."
So the 2013 season became a victory tour of sorts for Rivera. At each stop along the way, he was showered with gifts and tributes. Perhaps the most touching was how opposing players would routinely leave their dugout to give Rivera a standing ovation. That was their way of telling him they understood what he was about. How often have you ever seen so many players pay tribute to another in such a public way? If you don't know one other thing about Mariano Rivera, these gestures speak volumes.
Rivera had hinted broadly that 2012 would be his final season, but then when he wrecked his right knee on May 3 in Kansas City, he decided to give it another go. To return for another season required months of excruciating rehabilitation, but Rivera was determined to dictate how he went out.
That's another thing that made Rivera's final season so special. Athletes almost never tell the game when they're leaving. In virtually every instance, the game tells them when it's time to go. So in 2013, we could take one long last look at him, to appreciate his greatness and his precision and all the rest.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi knew the moment Rivera showed up at his office door in Spring Training that the time had come. Otherwise, why would Rivera be standing there?
"You know, it's not like he gets in a lot of trouble," Girardi said, "so when he sticks his head in your office, you kind of know."
Rivera told Girardi and he told Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte and a few others. And then he called a news conference and, flanked by his family and teammates, told the world.
Still, it all had an incomprehensible feel to it, that this would be the final time we'd see the great Rivera, with that amazing pitch that buckled knees and shattered bats. With that icy poise. With that sense of self and calm that always relaxed all those around him.
"When you hand him the ball, you think the game is over," Joe Torre once said. "That's a very comforting thing to the players and coaches and to the fans. You just feel like he's going to close it out. He usually did, too."
It was still difficult to wrap our minds around this being the final time, even down to that last time at Yankee Stadium, when Pettitte and Jeter were sent out to get Rivera and he broke down in tears right there on the mound.
After playing it typically cool the entire season, it was as if a reservoir of emotions had burst open, as if Rivera finally was coming to grips with it being over. He grabbed Pettitte, wrapped his arms around him and wouldn't let go. They'd grown close through the years -- teammates and friends, men of faith. They'd talked some about this moment, about this being the season that was right for both of them to go. And then when the time came, it was harder than either of them imagined.
There had been rumors that Rivera might finally fulfill one last dream, that of playing the outfield in a big league game. He had dropped small hints about it, and so did Girardi. In the end, though, he didn't do it.
He really couldn't. Not one of the great Yankees ever. Not turning the end of his career into a sideshow. When Rivera walked off the mound that night at Yankee Stadium, he was physically exhausted and emotionally drained.
When the Yanks arrived in Houston for the final series of the season, Rivera said that he had thrown his last pitch after 19 seasons, that he would use this final weekend to reflect on this being the end.
"I'm at peace," Rivera said.
No Yankee ever had a greater career than Mariano Rivera, not if you measure greatness in terms of performance and contributing to winning and representing the franchise the right way. He'll forever be one of the Yankees every other is measured against.
Rivera will be a topic of discussion whenever greatness in baseball is discussed, whenever class and humility and dignity are a topic of discussion. On the other hand, we were among the lucky ones. We were the ones that got to see him pitch, to celebrate championships and to laugh and to cry. We'll appreciate every single moment, because there will never be another one like him.