Yankees' Rivera meets veterans as farewell tour hits Tropicana Field
Yankees legendary closer Mariano Rivera, set to retire after this season, wanted to “say thank you” to “behind-the-scenes” fans in every city on his unprecedented farewell tour.
So before Tuesday’s game, Rivera met with about 15 military veterans from Tampa’s James A. Haley Veterans Hospital, including 93-year-old Edward Tomassine, who served in World War II. The future Hall of Fame reliever fielded questions in an informal Q&A, posed for photos and signed a ball for each one of them.
"It's amazing. They're sacrificing," Rivera said. "We go on the field to play. They go on the field to defend us, fight for us, give their life for us. We need more things to be done for these people after they finish. We've seen people that are injured. What gets done for them? We need to get more stuff done."
The group of veterans, as well as some active military members, spanned the ages of 23-93, having served from World War II to Vietnam to the Gulf War and current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. They're also dealing with varying health issues, from post traumatic stress disorder to head trauma, with many confined to wheelchairs. But Donovan said they were so excited for the rare opportunity, one joked he may "pee his pants."
“This is a bucket list (event) for a lot of our veterans,” said Mary Donovan, a hospital recreational therapist. "This is beyond huge."
One Vietnam vet, Bill Werts, 67, is confined to a wheelchair due to multiple sclerosis, but has worked in the Tropicana Field press dining room the past 13 years. Werts told Rivera, "as a Rays fan, I'm so happy you're retiring," drawing a huge laugh from the star pitcher.
"You're a tremendous competitor, and fun to watch," Werts said, "Even when you're shutting us down."
Another asked Rivera, 43, why he was retiring at such a "young" age. Rivera, 43, joked he still feels like a "young chicken," but said - after 613 career saves and five World Series rings - he was ready to walk away from the game to explore his other passions, including sharing his deep religious faith with others. Rivera said he and his family have renovated a century old church in New York, called the Refuge of Hope, that should begin services in the next month or so.
"Being a man of God, I want to talk to people about Christ," he said. "That's' what I plan to do. That's why I am hanging up the glove after this year."
Tomassine, a Watertown, Mass. resident who served under General George Patton in North Africa and Italy, said he had never met a major leaguer before, only "seeing them on TV." Tomassine said he's seen some good ones, including ex-Yankee lefty Joe Page (1944-1950), prompting Rivera to ask his age (93).
"God bless you," Rivera said, "That's amazing."
Said Tomassine: "I'm wearing this (Rays) cap, but I'm a Yankees fan."
Rivera, who also met with stadium staff and season ticket-holders on previous trips to Detroit and Cleveland, said he wanted to meet and thank loyal fans from all the different teams, curious what they've seen, and what they think.
More than Rivera's stature as the greatest closer of all-time, the veterans praised him as the man, for his faith, class and how much he gives back.
"It's the goodness, it's the pure goodness," Donovan said. "It's the wholesomeness. It's the faith which carries so many of these guys for what they've been through, what they've seen, what they've had to endure. They have a lot of years ahead of them like that, a lot of years ahead of them to really get well. This is a big step."