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Rivera hopes for long-lasting impact of Legend Series

PANAMA CITY, Panama -- The curvy thoroughfare is called Via Centenario, and it leads all the way to the famous Centennial Bridge, which crosses the even more famous Panama Canal.

The street is busy, lined with oversize buses and zooming motorcycles, and it's bumpy, too, but it's a road that every Panamanian baseball player -- from the legendary Mariano Rivera to Marlins Minor Leaguer Rodrigo Vigil -- knows well.

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The path to success for most players here almost always takes them to this famous avenue, then down a little dirt road, past the Leon Felipe Motta youth baseball field and right up to Panama's most well-known ballpark, Estadio Nacional Rod Carew.

Nestled in a mountainous region known as Cerro Patacon, Rod Carew Stadium is an old-world facility that houses only 27,000 fans on its best day, but it's always filled with hope. Rivera, the Yankees and the Marlins spent the weekend there as the stars of the inaugural Legend Series, known in Spanish as "La Serie De La Leyenda."

Though they played just two games in front of the locals, the impact of those games could be felt for decades.

"I know the kids here have dreams," Rivera said. "I hope they take this weekend like an injection, something to motivate them even more to keep moving forward and succeed."

The famous ballpark off Centenario, the one with dirt parking lots in the outfield that held World Baseball Classic qualifier games last year, will never be the same.

"This is something that I could have never imagined, and it happened in my own country," said Vigil, one of five Minor Leaguers from Panama making the trip with the Marlins. "My family drove eight hours to get here, because they have never seen me in my Miami uniform. There are no words to describe what this means to my family and all of the fans watching Major League Baseball in Panama. This is so big."

There have been 53 Major League players from Panama since pitcher Humberto Robinson made his debut with the Milwaukee Braves on April 20, 1955. Third baseman Hector Lopez, who is among the most famous, made his big league debut the next month with the Kansas City Athletics.

"For me, Hector Lopez is the foundation of this sport," Rivera said. "To carry on the tradition of men like Hector Lopez, Rod Carew and others who have made it to the Major Leagues is an honor and privilege. There no price on what they have meant."

The four Panamanian players on 40-man Major League rosters this spring are Braves catcher Christian Bethancourt, D-backs pitcher Randall Delgado, Phillies All-Star catcher Carlos Ruiz and Mets infielder Ruben Tejada. Several players from Panama are in the Minor Leagues.

Carew, a Hall of Famer, an 18-time All-Star and the winner of seven batting titles, and slugger Carlos Lee -- a three-time All-Star during his 14-year Major League career -- are also sources of pride for the country.

"The last 48 hours, I've gone around the country and have seen a lot of baseball and a lot of kids and facilities, and what I see is that baseball is a thriving sport," said Kim Ng, senior vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball. "I think the Yankees and Marlins coming down here inspires these kids and shows them what is possible."

Youth baseball is a part of the culture here. Children can begin play as young as age 4 and continue through their teens. Panama also has a professional baseball league, which is currently petitioning to return to the Caribbean Confederation, an organization that includes the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Almost all championship games at every level have been played at Rod Carew Stadium since the park opened in 1999.

"In Panama we are improving slowly, and you are seeing more and more signings of our players by different organizations," Vigil said. "We have lots of youth tournaments, and we compete internationally, too. I just hope it keeps growing and kids stay off the street and gangs and come to baseball."

The Legend Series marked Major League Baseball's first visit to Panama since 1947, and the celebration began immediately. On Friday the Marlins and the Yankees attended a gala to benefit the Mariano Rivera Foundation, with proceeds going to Children's Hospital in Panama City, the country's largest pediatric hospital. The next morning, Rivera -- along with Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton -- joined a group of dignitaries at a news conference on the top floor of the Trump Ocean Club International Tower and Hotel to officially kick off the series.

"For [Rivera] to get an opportunity to bring the Yankees and the Marlins here to play, MLB deserves a lot of credit for doing it," Jeter said. "I could tell it meant a lot to him. When you're around someone for that long, they don't necessarily have to tell you things. I could see that it meant a lot to him; just walking around, he had a lot of pride. No one deserves it more than him."

Several players from both teams visited area hospitals and toured the Panama Canal. Vigil, along with teammates Adeiny Hechavarria and Arquimedes Caminero and Yankees outfielder Zoilo Almonte and catcher Gary Sanchez, participated in a baseball clinic before Saturday's game.

"I hope these games motivate the young people of Panama," Rivera said. "We have a lot of talent here. I hope they go to sports and go to the highest level they can, maybe the Major Leagues."

The road to Via Centenario awaits.

Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB.

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