TAMPA, Fla. -- The beginning of the end came hard on an early spring Saturday morning when the Greatest Closer Who Ever Lived took a seat, surveyed the packed room and began discussing his future.
"Thanks to Brian Cashman for breaking his policy for giving an extension to players," Mariano Rivera said, nodding toward the Yankees general manager. "Thank you for two [more] years."
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Laughter filled the room. If only it were true.
"I'm telling you, the tank is almost empty," Rivera, now serious, acknowledged.
And: "I have a few bullets left. I want to use them well."
There will be other men who close for the Yankees. There will be other men who wow the crowd in ninth innings, wear pinstripes to the All-Star game and pitch their way into the hearts of future New Yorkers.
There will never be another Mariano Rivera.
So check the schedule. Scoop up your tickets. From Boston to Kansas City to Denver, see him now, before the curtain closes on 2013 and the Greatest Closer Who Ever Lived recedes into the history books.
"It's been a real treat," said manager Joe Girardi, who was on the other end of Rivera's devastating cutter as Yankees catcher from 1996-99 and on the other end of the dugout-to-bullpen telephone as New York skipper from 2008 until the book closes for good.
"He's irreplaceable," Cashman said. "He is the greatest of all time."
There is no argument here, or elsewhere.
There cannot be.
Five World Series rings. More saves, 608, than any closer ever. More postseason saves than any closer ever -- 42, a perfect match for the number he wears on the back of his jersey. Twelve All-Star teams.
In Orlando the other night, Tigers manager Jim Leyland was saying he believes there were three years when Rivera was "the MVP of all of baseball."
Inexplicably, Rivera finished in the top 10 of AL MVP voting just twice, when he ranked ninth in both 2004 and 2005.
"The Yankees, with him, they never thought they were going to lose," Leyland said. "Never. I'll guarantee you that."
In Port Charlotte the other day, manager Joe Maddon was remembering all the times his Rays sat in their dugout in ninth innings and discussed how Rivera was tipping his pitches.
It was all a joke, the point sharper than any spear the Rays (or anyone else) could ever find to slay the giant: Rivera fired one pitch, a cutter for all time, over ... and over ... and over.
Tipping his pitches? The Greatest Closer Ever may as well have been. Because here's the thing: Throughout the league, every hitter knew what was coming … and they STILL couldn't do anything about it.
"The best," Maddon said. "The best ever at what he does. It will be a long time until you get somebody better than that."
"You'll never see that again," Cashman said flatly.
Rivera confirmed Saturday he had planned to retire last season. Nobody knows better than closers, however, how quickly this game is capable of changing plans for you.
When he blew up his knee shagging fly balls during batting practice in Kansas City last May, he lost 2012 but the Yankees gained 2013.
"I did not want to leave like that," Rivera said.
You can argue that the gap between Rivera and other closers throughout history is far greater than the gap between any other single player at any other single position and the gap between others at that position.
Fact is, that's no argument. That's truth.
"It has been a privilege and an honor to wear the pinstripe uniform that I so proudly have worn for so many years through good times, great times and a learning process," Rivera said. "It has been wonderful."
At times Saturday as Rivera spoke, the room was the next-closest thing to sitting in church. And not simply because the closer is so deeply religious.
Reverently, the Yankees stood en masse off to the side. Quietly, dozens and dozens of media, Yankees employees and others listened to the meaning of these past 18 years. Sacredly, Rivera spoke of his time with Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter, and in this organization.
"The best thing for me that's happened was the Lord blessing me with this uniform," he said. "Putting the New York Yankees uniform on and being thankful for every minute I wore this uniform until the day I retire."
Class and respect were in attendance wherever he went. The greatest testament to the Greatest Closer Who Ever Lived is not simply in the World Series rings he helped his team earn.
No, it is that while he was breaking hearts in opponents' cities across the land … he made it darned difficult to hate the Yankees. At least, it was impossible to come anywhere close to disliking one particular Yankee.
"I've known him since he was in the minor leagues, and he has never changed once," Cashman said. "You see a lot of players get a lot of money and a lot of notoriety and change over time. He never changed a bit. …
"He's a giver. He's always been a giver. The higher up the food chain you go, the more your life gets cluttered, the more you get busy, and it's hard to find the time to give back. And that's not Mo at all.
"He's going to be hard to replace in the clubhouse, let alone on the field."
This was a day of joy, Rivera insisted. He said he was not sad, and he didn't want the fans or his family to be said, either.
He spoke of opportunities given, and of accomplishments achieved.
"First of all, I don't feel myself like the greatest of all time," he said in response to a question. "I am a team player. If it wasn't for my teammates, I wouldn't have had opportunities.
"I'd love to be remembered as a player who was there for others, who tried to help his teammates."
He will be remembered far and wide, for as long as major league baseball is played. The privilege and honor has been ours, as well as his.
In the end, Mariano Rivera will leave the Yankees in better shape than he found them. And for this organization, that is one monumental achievement.