Contributed by: Don WinnerBy George A. King (New York Post) PANAMA CITY, Panama — Mariano Rivera has five World Series rings, holds the record for saves that will never be touched, earned a place in Yankees history with Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Ford, Mantle, Berra and Jeter and will enter the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
Yet having the Yankees in his native country for two games this weekend at Rod Carew Stadium means as much to Rivera as anything he achieved in baseball.
“This is the icing on top of the cake, a cherry on top of the cake,’’ Rivera told The Post over breakfast Thursday morning.
After all he accomplished on the field, Rivera had one dream that will be fulfilled when the Yankees and Marlins play exhibition games Saturday and Sunday.
“This was a dream of mine, to have my team come here and play,’’ said Rivera, who sports the same trim body he used to record 652 saves. “I wanted my people to have the opportunity to enjoy the game of baseball at the highest level.’’
Like all dreams, Rivera’s started a long time before he even contemplated retirement.
“I had it the same time I was established in the big leagues, 1998,’’ Rivera said of his second year as the Yankees’ closer.
Rivera isn’t a stranger to big moments. He closed out World Series-clinching games, set the saves record at Yankee Stadium and raced to the mound to kiss the rubber after Aaron Boone’s homer beat the Red Sox in 2003 and sent the Yankees to the World Series. On the flip side, he gave up Luis Gonzalez’s broken-bat single that lifted the Diamondbacks over the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.
However, Saturday is going to hold enough juice to get Rivera’s heart rate up with his Yankees in his native land.
“I don’t know,’’ Rivera said when asked what Saturday will be like for him. “It’s going to be exciting with a lot of adrenaline and the fans. It’s going to be good.’’
When the Yankees summoned Rivera from the bullpen, he provided them with a thick security blanket. Now, he wants his countrymen to walk away from the weekend satisfied that his dream for them came true.
“I might,’’ Rivera said when asked about throwing out the first pitch. “I want to make sure my people enjoy the game.’’
For 23 years, the middle of February was the end of Rivera’s winter and the beginning of spring training. Last month, he no longer had to scrape Jaziel, his youngest son, off his leg as he left for Tampa. No longer did he anticipate walking onto George M. Steinbrenner Field and commencing with the mundane drills, bullpen sessions and seven or eight exhibition innings to get ready for another season.
“He is happy, he wants me to be his baseball coach,’’ Rivera said of 11-year-old Jaziel.
Now, as he battled the White Plains winter with everybody else in the New York metropolitan area, retirement has penetrated Rivera’s hairless head.
“It’s official because now is the first spring training since 1990 that I won’t be on the field,’’ Rivera said. “It feels different, but the beauty of that is I have been busy with the church, community and family.’’
When Rivera retired last year, he talked about possibly stopping by Tampa to see “the boys.’’ Now the boys are coming to him.
“I can’t wait. I haven’t seen them in a few months,’’ Rivera said. “I can’t wait to share with them in a different scenario.’’
As for the 2014 Yankees, Rivera believes the lineup will score runs and the pitching rotation is solid. His old job will be manned by David Robertson. The new closer has doubters, and the rest of the bullpen has questions.
“The bullpen is the thing where we need to take a look and follow real close,’’ Rivera said. “The one thing I don’t worry about is the Yankees always do what needs to be done to help the team as much as they can.’’
In a recent conversation with his successor, Rivera delivered a simple message to Robertson that covered every facet of his outstanding career. “I told him to have fun, enjoy and be ready,’’ Rivera said.
Across 19 big league seasons, Rivera lived by those words: Have fun. Enjoy. Be ready. It worked for him.
Now, not even a year removed from the final season, a dream he introduced to himself in 1998 comes true.
Panama gets to see Rivera’s Yankees, led by Derek Jeter, in the flesh.
Editor's Comment: If you can get anywhere near the stadium for these games, don't miss it. This will be an historic event for Panama that will be talked about for a very long time. This will be Panama saying "thank you" to Mariano for all he's done to elevate the country's image during the course of his career. And he has been an amazing example and ambassador for Panama, baseball, and the New York Yankees. Personally, I'm a huge fan, I'm going to miss him on the mound - and I wish him the very best in whatever the future might hold.