PANAMA CITY, Panama -- Mariano Rivera smiled and nodded his head at the crowd from his seat on the dais at the Trump Ocean Club International Tower and Hotel.
The former Yankees closer chuckled at Derek Jeter's joke and he playfully jabbed at Giancarlo Stanton's arm when the Marlins outfielder spoke glowingly about Rivera and then referenced the future Hall of Famer's age to the international media and fans in attendance.
Rivera is back home with his good friends, and he's serving in the biggest role of his career: the "legend" in Major League Baseball's Legend Series between the Yankees and the Marlins this weekend at Rod Carew Stadium.
"This is for my country," Rivera, 44, said. "I want my people from Panama to enjoy baseball on the best level. There is nothing better than Major League Baseball."
On Friday night, the Marlins and the Yankees attended a gala to benefit the Mariano Rivera Foundation, with proceeds going to Children's Hospital in Panama City, the country's largest pediatric hospital. The next morning, Rivera sat in between Jeter and Stanton on a star-studded stage that included representatives from Major League Baseball, the Major League Baseball Players Association, the Marlins, Yankees and sponsors of the event.
The legendary weekend in Panama has begun. In Spanish, the series is known as "La Serie De La Leyenda."
"I want to thank Major League Baseball and the Players Association for being here and making this possible," Rivera said. "I hope this event never stops, and I want to make sure we enjoy it and everybody is safe. I'll pray to the Lord that no one gets hurt and we'll be able to enjoy it."
The return of baseball to the country has been years in the making. The "Legend Series" between the Yankees and the Marlins marks Major League Baseball's first visit to the country since 1947.
"It's a privilege for us, as well as the Marlins, to get the opportunity to come here to Panama," Jeter, 39, said. "This is my third time. I came, I believe, 17 or 18 years ago to see Mo, and I was here a couple of years ago. This is a wonderful place, and I can't think of a better person to be honored than Mariano. I'm also happy that Major League Baseball has come back for the first time since , when Mo was a young child."
The crowd erupted in laughter after Jeter's joke. Stanton's comments a few minutes earlier also put a smile on Rivera's face.
"It is an honor to be here and to bring my team down here to honor Mariano," Stanton, 24, said. "I never got a chance to know him personally or Derek, but they are guys I grew up watching and helped me love the game that I play now."
Jeter and Rivera raised their eyebrows in jest when Stanton said he "grew up watching" them play.
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. In '47, the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers played exhibition games in Panama during a trip that also included stops in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.
"On behalf of Major League Baseball and Commissioner Selig, all of us are thrilled to be in Panama with the Miami Marlins and the New York Yankees for the Legends Series honoring the historic career of Mariano Rivera and his many contributions to our game," said Dan Halem, executive vice president of labor relations for Major League Baseball. "We are very proud to resume this tradition in a country that not only produced Mariano and Rod Carew, but 50 Major League Baseball players, and nearly 100 Major and Minor League players that are currently with our 30 clubs. Hopefully, it won't be another 60 years before we return to your beautiful country."
Major League Baseball has also played games in Mexico, Japan, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Venezuela and China.
"We started talking about this about three years ago," Yankees president Randy Levine said. "Mariano Rivera loves Panama. We love Mariano Rivera, and we love the people of Panama. This was a priority to come down here and honor him. Mariano made the decision last year to retire, and as great of an exit as it was, we all felt the need to give him one more great honor."