TAMPA, Fla. -- They came up through the Minor Leagues together, these three players who would help define an era of greatness for the Yankees. Someday, we'll tell our grandkids about them, that we were among the lucky ones who got to see them play. They did their game -- and themselves -- proud.
Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera made their Major League debuts within a few weeks of one another in 1995 and won the first of five World Series a year later. They weren't just great players, although they certainly were that, helping the Yankees win the World Series four times in their first six seasons. The Bronx Bombers have missed the playoffs only once since then.
If that's all they'd accomplished, it would be enough. But there's another part of their legacy that should not be forgotten, and years from now when we tell our grandkids about them, this may be where we begin.
That is, they were consummate professionals, representing the pinstripes in a way that will be the blueprint for every future Major League player. Between them, there probably weren't three controversial quotes in these last 18 years. They weren't about that. They simply prepared hard, played hard and understood they were role models. They were humble in victory, gracious in defeat.
Sure, that sounds too good to be true. In fact, it's amazing how similar these men from three different backgrounds are. It's as if the Yanks molded three perfect players and just once they got it exactly right. The three of them grew close, too, buddies in the Minor Leagues and then much more as the years passed.
"We're like brothers," Jeter said. "We've been through pretty much everything you can go through on a baseball field, starting with, what, 21 seasons together? We'll always be friends because we've been through so much."
They were a huge part of the reason that it became almost impossible to dislike the Yankees even as they kept winning championships. Bernie Williams arrived in 1991, Paul O'Neill in '93 and Jorge Posada at the end of '95. When Joe Torre was hired as manager after that season, the largest pieces were in place for four championship teams.
"It's more than teammates," Rivera said. "It's like brothers. We grew up together. It's a blessing to be able to play with men like Derek and Andy and many others. I couldn't be more grateful. I don't consider them teammates. I consider them family."
Pettitte, Jeter and Rivera gathered Saturday morning as Rivera, 43, announced that the 2013 season would be his last. He'd apparently planned to retire after last season, but when he suffered an early-season knee injury, he decided to come back one more year and go out on his own terms.
"We just have a special relationship," Pettitte said of Rivera. "I don't know how to explain it. Obviously when you've spent as much time together for as many years as we've been together, you just kind of grow a little bit closer to one another than you would with other teammates. I think our minds all work alike. There's a commitment we have to this organization and to this game. The will to win. We just have a lot in common. We push each other in good times and bad. He has always been there for me."
It'll be interesting to watch the next chapter of Rivera's life unfold because he has so much to offer whatever his next pursuit turns out to be. He'll surely continue to contribute to the Yanks in some way, either as an instructor or a talent evaluator or someone general manager Brian Cashman can use as a sounding board.
Rivera is a role model for people inside the game and out. And he performed at the highest level possible and was critical to his team's success. As legacies go, there's not one better than that.
At a time when the Yankees' offense has been gutted by injuries and free-agent defections, it's popular to pick them to finish at or near the bottom of the American League East. For those of us who've been around for the entire ride, that's a tough sell. No matter how many players the Yanks have lost, it's easy to believe in them when you walk into that clubhouse and see Rivera, Jeter and Pettitte still wearing the uniform.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.