PANAMA CITY, Panama -- The outfield wall swung open and Mariano Rivera walked through once more, his shoes crunching into the warning track, his ears filled by the thumping introductory beats of Metallica's "Enter Sandman."
This was among the most recognizable entrances in the big leagues for so many years, and yet the all-time saves leader never enjoyed an ovation like this one. He would struggle to describe the emotions felt while padding through the grass of Rod Carew Stadium, except to say that it was a "spectacular" moment.
And as he scanned the wildly festive grandstands, rising in a great roar with their honking vuvuzelas and colorful banners to welcome the greatest baseball icon that Panama has ever claimed, Rivera thought to himself: "My people."
"It was amazing," Rivera said, seated a few minutes later in a news conference room underneath the stadium. "Being there and seeing people being there for you the way they are, there's no price. I thank God for that. It's amazing. Thank God for this moment."
Enter Sandman. pic.twitter.com/K3jR7O8FIR- Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) March 16, 2014
The starting lineups for the Yankees and the Marlins stood on the first and third baselines, respectively, and applauded as Rivera slowly walked to the mound. It was just last September that Rivera made his final, memorable Yankee Stadium appearance, in what he called a perfect conclusion to his playing career.
That ended a season of farewells, pregame ceremonies held in cities around the league to honor the exit of a player so widely respected by his peers, at least one club saved some of the bats his famed cutter had shattered with inside pitches over the years.
Rivera truly appreciated all of those gestures, joking that he would have to build a new room in his house just to store all of the rocking chairs, bicycles, fishing rods and other knick-knacks. With a series of meet-and-greets behind closed doors, he arguably gave back more than he received in each stop.
And yet: "This one is different. This one is home," Rivera said. "All the ceremonies I had, I can never thank enough for what they have done for me. But when you come home, it's home. There's nothing better than home."
Wearing his pinstriped home jersey over his street clothes, the No. 42 embroidered into the back, Rivera clutched a microphone on the mound and addressed the crowd in Spanish. He grinned often, gesturing toward the benches of both clubs.
A baseball marked with the logo of "La Series de la Leyenda" was cradled in Rivera's right palm, and he watched as David Robertson -- his successor as Yankees closer, after 652 regular-season saves and a Major League-record 42 more in the postseason -- jogged behind home plate to receive the toss.
Rivera later said that he thought of it as the ceremonial "passing of the torch."
"Knowing that you're having an end and a beginning," Rivera said. "It's wonderful that it happened in my hometown. My wish and my prayers are that Robertson can do the job. Hopefully he has some help in the bullpen and he can do that."
Robertson has excelled as a big league setup man, but is just 8-for-18 in save opportunities coming into this season. Robertson said that Rivera's support has been important to him as he attempts the transition.
"I've tried to soak up all the knowledge I can from him," Robertson said. "He's shown me a lot over the years. He has confidence in me, and I have confidence in myself. It's good to know that he believes I can do it. I believe I can do it, and it's nice to know that someone who's got 600 saves thinks that I have the capabilities to do it."
Yankees manager Joe Girardi said that he would like to have Rivera join his former teammates on the bench during this two-game series, and Rivera agreed that he would enjoy the opportunity to do so.
"I've encouraged him to be in our dugout and try to be in uniform a little bit," Girardi said. "I will still keep pounding on him to do that. I'm sure he has a lot of responsibilities here, but it would be great. I've got 18 innings to get him in there."
Girardi has also been ribbing Rivera about putting his spikes on to play an inning in center field during this visit. Rivera turned down that same offer in September during the last three games of the season in Houston, and on Saturday, he shook his head again.
For Rivera, the future is dominated by his family and his church; there are no more innings of baseball left to play. Nothing could improve upon what he has already experienced.
"It's full circle. There's no going back," Rivera said. "It's done. It's sealed already, coming here to my home and receiving this ovation in my hometown with my ex-teammates and peers. It was wonderful. This is it."