NEW YORK -- Twenty-eight summers have passed since Mariano Rivera packed his bags and hugged his family in the Panamanian town of Puerto Caimito, his pockets filled with $3,000 of Yankees bonus money and a plane ticket that would carry the young right-hander to his new life in the Gulf Coast League.
As Rivera tried on his final uniform Wednesday, buttoning the cream colors of the National Baseball Hall of Fame over a dress shirt, the greatest relief pitcher in history laughed loudly. His path from a small fishing port to this five-star hotel in midtown Manhattan, he said, had been an amazing one.
"I was just hoping to hang in there, to do the job right until they gave me an opportunity to play in the big leagues," Rivera said. "I never thought that this could happen. I don't think that any player thinks about something like this. We wanted to win championships and represent the All-Star team. Being in the Hall of Fame? Never like this."
One day after Rivera appeared on all 425 ballots cast by eligible members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, the first unanimous selection in more than eight decades of voting, he was joined by fellow inductees Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina in a 20th floor ballroom at the St. Regis hotel.
Though Rivera's nod came as little surprise, following an illustrious playing career that saw the regal right-hander record a Major League record 652 saves plus 42 more in the postseason, he remained awed by the achievement.
"It's something that I cannot comprehend," Rivera said. "To have 425 people that have to vote, and they all voted for me? All I have to say is thank God. And I want to thank the New York fans; Yankees fans are the best."
It provided a fun twist to the festivities that Rivera will enter Cooperstown alongside Martinez, whom Rivera frequently mentioned as the toughest hitter he had to face during his 19-year Major League career. Though most flailed against Rivera's trademark cutter, resulting in a barrage of shattered bats and soft outs, Martinez somehow feasted.
In 23 career plate appearances against Rivera, the longtime Mariners designated hitter batted .579 (11-for-19) with three doubles, two homers, six RBIs and three walks, striking out four times. That average is the highest of any batter Rivera faced more than six times.
"Edgar has to take me to dinner; maybe tomorrow?" Rivera said. "One of these days. Because of me, his average was better. Therefore, you owe me dinner."
Despite those impressive statistics, Martinez said that stepping into the box against Rivera was never an enjoyable assignment.
"I might have some good numbers, but when you would come in late in a game to face Mariano, it was going to be a challenge," Martinez said. "Even if you'd get a hit, it doesn't feel like you were getting a hit. He's one of the best in history and his consistency through the years, he's the best ever. You never felt comfortable."
Rivera certainly was not serving up pitches for Martinez, though his generosity had once backfired with the late Roy Halladay, who will be posthumously inducted this summer. Rivera recalled how he spent one afternoon in the outfield helping Halladay, then with the Blue Jays, refine his cutter.
"We always talked about pitching," Rivera said. "I was teaching him the grip for the cutter, and he was throwing the pitch. Derek [Jeter] and all the hitters from my team were mad at me. As a matter of fact, I got fined by our kangaroo court because Halladay was so good against us. They blamed me. They said, 'You don't have to hit the ball!'"
As the newest Hall of Famers continued to field inquiries from the press, Rivera's demand for a meal rattled within Mussina's mind.
"I do want to bring one more thing up," Mussina offered. "If [Martinez] is buying dinner for you, how many times did I set you up so you could sit up here? I think you should take me someplace."
Rivera and Andy Pettitte hold the all-time record for win-saves, with 72, having surpassed the previous record of 57 compiled by Bob Welch and Dennis Eckersley during their time with the Athletics. But Mussina and Rivera were a formidable tandem as well, producing 49 win-saves as Yankees teammates.
For that, Rivera suggested, perhaps Mussina had earned a trip to the Olive Garden. Now it was Mussina's turn to laugh.
"Olive Garden!" he said. "We're going Italian!"