Mariano Rivera threw his first baseball near the muddy shores of a Panamanian fishing village, where his friends fashioned milk cartons into gloves and used tree branches for bats. Years later, the Yankees arrived and discovered a lanky teenager who would become the game's all-time saves leader.
As improbable as that journey might have seemed at the time, Rivera may actually be enjoying his finest baseball accomplishment this weekend. Rivera has brought the Yankees to his home country, to play in a two-game Legend Series against the Marlins in Panama City this weekend.
"It means a lot to me and I want to thank the teams, because it's an honor and privilege to have the Marlins and my ex-teammates in my beloved Panama," said Rivera, who is serving as an ambassador for the event. "It's been a dream to have games in Panama. It's going to be great to be able to have these games there."
The Legend Series marks Major League Baseball's first visit to Panama since 1947. The games, a rematch of the 2003 World Series, will honor the legacy of Rivera, who retired after last season. The games count as part of the teams' Spring Training schedule.
"I think we know what the Yankees mean to Mo, and I think we know what his country means," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi. "To be able to combine the two, I think is really special."
The Yankees arrived in Panama on Thursday evening, and the Marlins were to arrive on Friday afternoon. Both clubs will attend a charity dinner on Friday evening that is tentatively scheduled to be attended by Ricardo Martinelli, the president of Panama.
The Legends Series will include events that will benefit the Mariano Rivera Foundation. Proceeds will go to Children's Hospital in Panama City, the country's largest pediatric hospital.
"I hope these games can help youth of Panama and motivate them by seeing professionals play," Rivera said. "They need to study, of course, but also do sports, and stay out of the streets. Baseball is not easy, but it's a beautiful sport and I know this is going to be something spectacular. I hope the country takes advantage of it and enjoys something we have not seen in years."
Yankees right-hander Adam Warren and Marlins left-hander Brad Hand are scheduled to start the first game of the Legends Series on Saturday at 9:05 p.m. ET. Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia and Marlins right-hander Nathan Eovaldi are to start the second game on Sunday at 2:05 p.m. ET.
"When I heard about it, I wanted to go," Sabathia said. "I knew that [Rivera] would be there and that it would be a big deal for him. Playing with him for five years, I want a chance to go over there and see how that will be for him."
The Marlins' travel squad is led by Eovaldi, Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich. The Yankees' roster includes Derek Jeter, Brett Gardner, Carlos Beltran and Alfonso Soriano, as well as David Robertson, who is being handed the challenge of replacing Rivera as closer.
There surely will be pleas to see Rivera take the mound, but Rivera is insistent that he and his famed cutter have shattered their last bat. Rivera said that there is "no chance" of him making an in-game appearance against the Marlins this weekend, although it's safe to bank on ceremonial first pitches and answering to many, many autograph requests.
Rivera has said that his playing career had the perfect conclusion last Sept. 27 at Yankee Stadium, when he was removed from the game by teammates Jeter and Andy Pettitte. Rivera buried his face in Pettitte's shoulder that night, weeping on the mound, and there were few dry eyes anywhere in the ballpark. In the time since, Rivera has focused his energy on his family and his church.
"I'm not on the 25-man roster anymore, but my heart will always be with the Yankees," said Rivera, who retired with 652 regular-season saves and 42 more in the postseason, both records.
Panama will become the seventh country to host games between two Major League teams. Mexico, Japan, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and China are the others.
Hall of Fame manager Joe McCarthy and members of the Yankees trained in Panama in February 1946 and played against a Panamanian professional league all-star team. The Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers played exhibition games in Panama during a trip that also included stops in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Venezuela in 1947.