Rachel Robinson watched Mariano Rivera from a distance, watched the last man to wear the number of the first man given a chance denied all African-American prospects before him. Robinson decided this son of Panama was a worthy ambassador of her husband's legacy, and of all the tributes to be paid Rivera from here to October, none will mean more than that.
"He carried himself with dignity and grace," the 90-year-old Robinson said Thursday by phone, "and that made carrying the number a tribute to Jack."
As a rookie in 1995, handed jersey No. 42 by a clubhouse attendant, Rivera had no idea what the number represented, other than an official place on the New York Yankees' roster. It was fitting that two years later, the same year Rivera replaced John Wetteland as the full-time closer, baseball honored the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's big-league debut by retiring his jersey from coast to coast while grandfathering in the active 42s.
Over time Rivera would educate himself on the sacrifices Robinson made, on the abuse he endured in the name of segregating a whites-only game, and ever since Mo Vaughn quit playing in 2003, Mo has been the last 42 standing. He will retire at the end of this season as the greatest closer of all time, and as a fisherman's son the equal of Joe DiMaggio.
And even though he didn't share Robinson's heritage, or his struggle, Rivera was the right man to usher into retirement the most important number in a game of numbers. He beat the longest odds to make the majors. He never celebrated himself at the expense of vanquished opponents. He performed on the ballfield with a quiet, but fierce, determination.
On a certain level, Rivera's career was a here's-to-you, Mrs. Robinson.
"Mariano is a wonderful player," Rachel Robinson said, "and he's taken his place on the team in serious ways but also in graceful ways. I'm very pleased with what he's done, and I'm always a little sad when someone who's accomplished so much retires."
Robinson said she never got to know Rivera personally; they did meet on a couple occasions. But as the first lady of baseball, Rachel Robinson knows Mo the way millions of fans know him -- as a stately figure on the mound, a concert pianist who entered the arena to a heavy metal beat.
That he would one day make Yankee Stadium shake under the sound of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" was something nobody saw coming, not even Mo. He was a skinny kid out of Puerto Caimito, Panama, who used a milk carton for a glove, and later a teenage shortstop who didn't hit enough to interest the scouts. The Yankees eventually signed the converted pitcher for $3,000, and by the time Rivera was playing Single-A ball in Greensboro, N.C., he was a surgically repaired non-prospect whom the Yanks didn't bother protecting in the '92 expansion draft.
"A great moment in Yankee history," Mark Newman, minor league executive, would joke years later.
Forty-one pitchers would be selected by the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins in that expansion draft, none named Mariano Rivera, once a Gulf Coast League rookie who had cried in his hotel room because he couldn't communicate with his English-speaking teammates and coaches.
Rivera endured and pitched a seven-inning no-hitter in the final game of that 1990 season, finishing with a 0.17 ERA and then hounding Newman for the $500 bonus promised him. He badly needed the money just as he did in 1993 in Greensboro, where he recovered from the elbow surgery while a first-round pick named Derek Jeter commanded the organization's full attention.
Jeter committed 56 errors that season, and yet even the official scorer who kept docking him, Ogi Overman, knew the shortstop was going places. But Rivera? "I thought he was on a one-way trip to nowhere," Overman said. "I don't remember Rivera being anything."
Out of left field Rivera's fastball jumped up 5-6 mph on radar guns in 1995, and suddenly a mediocre starter was on his way to Cooperstown as a closer. The Yankees nearly traded him in '95 (for David Wells) and in the spring of '96 (for Felix Fermin), but fate intervened. Rivera would spend 19 years, including this one, wearing Jackie Robinson's number for the Yankees, whose luck was the residue of their design.
That was Branch Rickey's line, of course, and Thursday -- the day it was revealed the last active No. 42 will retire at season's end -- Rachel Robinson talked some about Rickey's Brooklyn Dodgers, and about the executive's decision in 1947 to make Rachel's husband a Dodger like no other.
Jackie Robinson's teammate and friend, Ralph Branca, would say that Robinson did as much for the cause of racial equality as Martin Luther King, Jr. did.
"We're all very proud of the part Jack played in social change in this country," Rachel Robinson said. "I'm extremely proud of President Obama in his own right; he's shown he's the kind of leader one can feel proud of. I think Jack, like many other heroes and heroines from the past, performed in such a way that the people coming forward had shoulders to stand on."
That's why 42 was more than just a number to identify the enduring talents of Rivera, who's had it to himself for nine years. Mo would call Robinson's number "a great honor to me, and something I take very seriously. You have to respect what that man did, and everything he went through."
Rivera's approach was always about respect -- for opponents, for the game, for his place in it. "I've always been proud and pleased that Mariano was the one chosen to wear that number because I think he brought something special to it," Rachel Robinson said.
Asked if she thought her husband would've been proud of his association with Rivera, Rachel said, "Of course. Jack appreciated dignity in anyone he met, especially someone in the public eye who influenced young people through his behavior like Mariano does."
Upon Rivera's retirement in the fall, Jackie Robinson's legacy will carry on with the Yankees in the form of Robinson Cano, named after the Dodgers great, assuming the pending free agent signs on to continue his career in the Bronx. The upcoming film on Robinson's life, "42," which has earned Rachel's approval, will also educate younger fans on her Jack's uncommon courage.
But even though he was born in another country, in another time, Rivera will be missed as a living reminder of America's most significant athlete. In the coming weeks and months he'll be feted for the magic he made with one pitch, the cutter, good enough for 608 saves and counting. People will be lined up to call him the greatest this and the greatest that, and rightfully so.
None of it will mean more than Rachel Robinson's thumbs-up.