CLEVELAND -- The greatest closer ever was looking for the most persistent ballpark drummer ever.
"Where's the drummer?" Mariano Rivera said aloud, his neck craning as he scanned the room in search of John Adams, who has been banging away in the bleachers at every Indians home game since 1973.
Adams raised his hand.
"You da man!" Rivera told him. "Being here, day after day, I really respect that."
Respect is a word we often associate with Rivera. Even if you hate -- hate -- the Yankees with every fiber of your being, as many baseball fans no doubt do, you have to respect Rivera for his extraordinary success in the ninth inning and the exemplary way he has carried himself on and off the field lo these many years.
But if you could have been in this room in the bowels of Progressive Field on Wednesday afternoon and watched Rivera interact with Adams and about 30 otherwise unheralded employees of the Indians, your respect for the man would have grown by leaps and bounds. Because as part of a farewell tour in which he will be honored in every road park in which the Yankees play this season, it is Rivera who wants to be the one offering the most heartfelt thanks.
In Detroit last weekend, Rivera met with a groundskeeper who has been on the job for more than four decades, a longtime season-ticket holder and a local Marine. Here in Cleveland it was a hodgepodge of payroll, human resources, press box and stadium-ops employees, all of whom had the opportunity to take part in a little Q&A session with the Cooperstown-bound Rivera.
"This is the greatest thing in the world," said John Krepop, who is in his 41st season as the Tribe's press box supervisor. "He genuinely wants to meet the people behind the scenes. It's fantastic."
Krepop and all the others got to take their photo with the 43-year-old Rivera and were handed an autographed ball. It was a small thing -- it probably took less than 30 minutes out of Rivera's day -- but it's something that will linger with these folks long after Rivera records his final out.
"I just want to say 'thank you' for those people that no one sees," Rivera said. "They are important. Sometimes we do take for granted what it takes to keep the stadium in order for us to come and play baseball -- not only just the field but the facility, the whole stadium. So I chit-chat with them, say 'thank you,' sign for them, take a picture. Whatever. I just want to make sure they know that I appreciate them."
Rivera will do this during each of his final visits to the various Major League parks this season. Jason Zillo, the Yankees' director of communications, said that Rivera has been talking about doing this for several years. And although Rivera knows he's not going to convert all these people to Yankees fandom, there is little question that all of them will come away Rivera fans, if they weren't already.
While talking with Tribe employees, Rivera shared a little insight about his career, his motivations, his thoughts on facing those great Indians lineups in the 1990s. Somebody mentioned Game 4 of the 1997 American League Division Series, when Rivera served up a game-tying home run to Sandy Alomar Jr., his first of just two blown saves in 96 postseason appearances, and Rivera called it a seminal moment in his career.
"For me it was the stone where I stepped to push forward, because it helped me to become better," Rivera said. "If that wouldn't have happened, God only knows where I would have ended up. But because that happened, it pushed me to be better in moments like that and in situations like that."
That Alomar home run was, of course, one of very few blips on the otherwise pristine radar Rivera has established over the course of 19 seasons. We can all agree on very few things in life and in baseball, but there is unanimous support of the notion that Rivera has done his particular job better than anybody else.
No wonder Adams spoke on behalf of Indians fans and told Rivera it's a "relief" to see him retire.
"You've given me a lot of stress!" Adams said with a smile.
That's about the only negative thing an opposing fan can say about Rivera. The guy is first class, and he's demonstrating it in a unique way on the road.
"You only retire once," Rivera said. "I've never been in this situation before, but I'm going to enjoy it. I appreciate it. I have respected the game the way you should respect it, and I have respected the organizations the way you should respect the organizations."