Panama’s Favorite Son – Mariano Rivera Honored In his Home Country

March 20, 2014 – The Yankees made history last weekend by playing the first major league game in Panama since 1947. I covered the Yankees two-game Legend Series — honoring Mariano Rivera — against the Miami Marlins for a feature story that will appear in the 2014 New York Yankees Yearbook and in the April Issue of Yankees Magazine.

The games certainly didn’t lack drama — the Yankees were no-hit on Saturday, and then they came back and held Miami to one hit on Sunday — but the weekend was about so much more than what took place between the white lines.

The three-day event was all about the great Mariano Rivera, who had long wanted to bring the Yankees to his native country. After nearly a year of planning, Rivera’s dream came true, and as an ambassador, the former closer certainly made the most of the experience.

The team flew to Panama on a chartered flight on March 13, and as each member of the traveling party stepped out of the plane, Rivera and his wife, Clara, were there. Rivera welcomed the guys he had played alongside for decades as well as the ballplayers who have joined the team since his 2013 retirement with the same enthusiasm.

“I wanted to greet my team,” Rivera said. “When they saw me, they were smiling and laughing. I could feel the love from them, and that meant more to me than I can put into words.”

The following morning, Rivera and several Yankees players, coaches and executives took a guided tour of the Panama Canal, and that was my favorite experience of the trip, and one that exceeded my expectations.

The 48-mile waterway, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and which has saved ships from having to travel 8,000 miles around the southern tip of South America for the last 100 years, is awe-inspiring.

As I stood on a concrete platform that overlooked a small portion of the canal, I gained a tremendous appreciation for the people who created the canal 100 years ago, and I enjoyed listening to Rivera share his pride in Panama’s most significant landmark.

“The people who built the canal are not around today, but I often think about the sacrifices they made during the 10 years the canal was being built,” said Rivera. “Those people caught malaria, they were injured, and in some cases, they lost their lives. It’s refreshing to see how those people are appreciated today for opening up a pathway between two oceans. More than anything else, I am proud that the people who gave so much were Panamanians.”

During the tour, we walked across the Mira Flora Locks on a two-foot wide bridge. That would not be a trek I would recommend to anyone who is afraid of heights, especially when the water in the locks is brought down. As you walk across the tiny bridge, which has metal railings on each side — except, of course, where there are gaps in the railings — it’s difficult to avoid looking down several hundred feet to the surface of the water on one side of the locks.

Once we got to the other side of the locks, we toured the building with the computerized system that controls the locks, raising and lowering the water so that ships can pass from one ocean to another.

A few feet from the modern-day control center sits the now out-dated manual controls, and that was as interesting to learn about as the massive computerized operation.

Following the tour of the canal, we ate lunch at the American Trade Hotel, located in Panama City’s Casco Viejo. The historic part of town, which was settled in 1673, still has an old-world look. From the brick streets outside the hotel, to the marble floors within the rustic building, it felt like we had stepped back in time.

Later that evening, Rivera hosted about 500 people at a charity gala. The dinner, benefitting Panama City’s Children’s Hospital, took place on a roof-top deck at the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower. In addition to raising a sizable amount of money for the pediatric medial center — tickets to the event cost $400 — Rivera also signed autographs for the better part of the night. As Joe Girardi said afterward, “Everyone who wanted to take a photo with Mo or get his autograph, got their wish. Mo made sure that everyone left happy.”

The biggest celebration of the weekend took place on Saturday night. After being honored throughout the United States in 2013, Rivera received the most memorable tribute of them all on March 15. In front of a tightly-packed crowd of 27,000, Rivera made his entrance from right field before the game. With Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” playing, Rivera walked slowly to the mound, where he addressed the crowd.

“Thank you very much for being here for me in my beautiful Panama,” Rivera said. “This is something I wanted for a long time.”

Then, Rivera tossed a ceremonial first pitch to his successor, David Robertson.

“That pitch was the passing of the torch to David,” Rivera said in a news conference after the ceremony. “I’m praying that he will succeed as the Yankees closer, and I’m confident that he will do the job. I believe in him.”

For Rivera, the passionate ovation from his fellow Panamanians and the presence of the Yankees in his home country made for an emotional night.

“To get that ovation in my hometown, with my teammates on hand, that was wonderful,” Rivera said. “This one is different. I am thankful for all of the ceremonies I had in the United States. But when you come home, there’s nothing better than that. To have that moment in my country, and to feel the love from my people is the greatest gift I could ever get. When I got to the mound and saw my people cheering in the seats, it was spectacular. I can’t describe the emotions I felt that moment, because there are no words that could express how happy I really was.”

The next day, boxing legend Roberto Duran — who is also from Panama — tossed the ceremonial first pitch, with Rivera at his side. A few hours later, we were on a chartered flight back to Tampa, and by my count, everyone on that plane left the country with lifelong memories of a historic event. I was lucky to be one of those people.

This was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. During the three days in Panama, I had unequaled access to Rivera. I shadowed him at the Panama Canal. I was in the dugout with he and his family in the hour before he took the field for his greatest honor. And, I conducted a lengthy one-on-one interview with the great closer moments after the emotional pre-game ceremony.

All of that went into a unique feature that I believe is a great read. Enjoy the story.

–Alfred Santasiere III

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1 Comment

It’ll be a long time before there’s another legend like Rivera!

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