COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Mariano Rivera seemed awestruck as he walked the hallways of the National Baseball Hall of Fame for the first time on Friday. As he savored a behind-the-scenes tour, the longtime Yankees hurler reflected upon his improbable path toward greatness from a tiny fishing village in Panama.Less than
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Mariano Rivera seemed awestruck as he walked the hallways of the National Baseball Hall of Fame for the first time on Friday. As he savored a behind-the-scenes tour, the longtime Yankees hurler reflected upon his improbable path toward greatness from a tiny fishing village in Panama.
Less than two weeks after Rivera became the first unanimous Hall of Famer, appearing on all 425 ballots cast by eligible members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, Rivera and his wife, Clara, visited the revered museum for their orientation on an icy, crisp morning. He said that their experience far exceeded expectations.
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"I'm thankful," Rivera said. "I respect the game, I respected my opponents, I respected anything that has to do with baseball. To be elected 100 percent, being the first one, my heart is full of gratitude. It is amazing. It was something special."
Guided by Erik Strohl, the Hall's vice president of collections and exhibitions, Rivera had the opportunity to touch history. The Yankees great marveled as he gripped one of Babe Ruth's game-used bats from 1930, and appeared emotional as he inspected the cap that was worn by Roberto Clemente when the Pirates legend recorded his 3,000th and final hit.
While visiting the plaque gallery, Rivera was humbled as he pressed his hand to Ruth's bronzed visage, remarking, "This is baseball."
Rivera paid homage to other legends, including Yankees greats Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle and Joe Torre, as well as knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm, who had been Rivera's first Minor League pitching coach in 1990. Rivera also spoke effusively of the impact that fellow Panamanian Rod Carew had on his home country.
"He put us on the map, the way he played the game, the way he went about the game," Rivera said of Carew. "He represented us in a great way that we can never forget, no matter what I did. If it wasn't for him, it would have been different. He was a special man."
The final player to wear No. 42, which was universally retired in 1997 to honor Jackie Robinson, Rivera took special note of any exhibits relating to the barrier-breaking Dodgers great.
"One question that popped in my mind was, what would Mr. Jackie Robinson have said about me, being the last player to wear his number?" Rivera said. "Would he have been proud?"
Surely, Robinson would have approved of the hurler's gentle grace and generous spirit. Rivera said that he never took the opportunity to wear a big league uniform for granted, methodically fastening each of the buttons on his jersey prior to each game. During that time, he said that he silently remembered those who came before him.
"For me, that was my greatest moment in baseball," he said. "Not on the field, because on the field, we had a lot of great moments. Just putting the uniform on, those pinstripes, day in and day out, year in and year out, for 19 seasons, that was amazing. Every day that I had the opportunity to put the pinstripes on, it was a privilege and an honor to do that."
During his visit, Rivera spent time getting to know some of his new "teammates," including the Hall's inaugural Class of 1936: Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner.
"The patriarchs, those five, they represent baseball to me," Rivera said. "Knowing that they opened the doors and we followed them, they transcend baseball. There are no words to express the gratitude I feel right now."
Rivera will return to Cooperstown on July 21, when he will join Harold Baines, Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina and Lee Smith in the Hall's Class of 2019. Rivera said that he expects a hearty contingent of Yankees fans to be in attendance, and that he is looking forward to crafting his remarks in the near future.
"I can tell you that it will be a short speech, but it will come from the heart," Rivera said.
Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and on Facebook.