"You have worn the number with class and dignity, and I believe you added to the historic significance of that number," Rachel Robinson, Jackie's 91-year-old widow, told the all-time saves leader, now retired. "I'm sure if Jack had seen you play, he would have been proud to have had his number worn by you. Although not as appreciative as if it were worn for a team other than the Yankees."
Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier on April 15, 1947, when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on Opening Day at Ebbets Field. On the 50th anniversary of that landmark achievement, Commissioner Bud Selig announced that no players going forward would wear No. 42, as a tribute. The only exception was for players who were already wearing 42 at that time.
Rivera was one of them, of course, and he said before Monday's dinner that he had to make a personal decision about whether to continue to wear those digits.
"It was a little pressure, because I know the legacy and the man who carried number 42," Rivera said. "But I took it as a challenge. I said, 'I'm going to take it as a challenge and give it my best, so I can make Mr. Jackie Robinson proud.' I took it seriously. I think I did OK. I'm proud of what he did for us.
"Jackie Robinson means everything to this sport. Especially for us, as minorities. He broke a color barrier that no one can do. It took a special player and special people to do that. ... I would have loved to have known Jackie Robinson. So I have to say thank you for the legacy that he left us and the job that he did for us. I wanted to say that to Rachel. It's a privilege to receive this award."
Sharon Robinson, Jackie's daughter, presented Rivera with his award. He said it was "humbling."
"Bill Cosby -- why do I always have to be last?" Rivera, the last recipient to be presented in the show, asked amid laughter in what now has become a frequent refrain in award dinners for the former closer. "I have been trying to figure that out most of my life."
Rivera began his speech by thanking his wife, Clara, who was in the audience.
"Wow. I have my wife here. I thank God for her," Rivera said. "I believe that God chose her for me. Without her, it wouldn't be possible to be the man I am today."
Then Rivera added to the constant wave of appreciation given by the dinner guests to Rachel, who has her customary seat each year next to the super-active dance floor.
"For me, especially being here, I'm not that kind of smart," Rivera said in his acceptance speech. "I played baseball. I have one thing. And as a Christian, I truly believe that the Lord put people in every area of our life. And He placed Mr. Jackie Robinson in an area where he knew he would succeed. And he did succeed. He opened doors for us. Getting the opportunity as minorities to play the game we love, to play the game he loved, and have a passion for it. But not only passion, but love for it.
"For you to do all these things, you have to have something called love. If you don't have that, it means nothing. And Mr. Jackie Robinson passed the torch to Rachel. Yes, I said I would love to have met him. But I saw and I met his wife. And that tells me the man he was. That tells me the character he had. With that he passed that beautiful torch to this beautiful woman, Rachel. And she hasn't stopped carrying that torch today."
Rivera looked up at the Jackie Robinson Scholars sitting in the balcony at the lavish Grand Ballroom and said, "I'm so proud of you guys upstairs. You guys making the opportunity you have been given to get the most out of it. I encourage you to continue and don't stop there. Do it for others, as it was done for you. Because you guys are leaders. Yes, you guys are leaders. You are made to lead and not to be led."
Rivera said the church he is building in New Rochelle, N.Y., will open on Thursday. It continues his own legacy of humanitarian impact in the community. Clara will be its pastor.
"For me, that's the most important part of life," Rivera said. "Yeah, baseball, I did that to support my family. But it's about giving back to community. That's what it is. It's bigger. You don't do it to be recognized. You do it because it comes from the heart. You want to please the Lord."
"The impressive achievements of these extraordinary individuals are indicators of what can be accomplished if you live a life of purpose," said Della Britton Baeza, president and CEO of the JRF. "We are grateful for their commitment in supporting our mission of narrowing the achievement gap in education, and we take pride in recognizing the role they have played in making a difference in the lives of others."
Rivera reiterated that he "didn't expect" former teammate Derek Jeter to retire after this season, adding, "I wish him the best." And while the Yankees were down at Spring Training in Florida, his former way of life, Rivera said he was still getting used to the notion of not suiting up.
"After my retirement, I won't say I don't miss playing," he said. "It was difficult. But I'm happy. We are going to be opening a church in three days and that is a privilege."