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Mariano Rivera and No. 42

The sun is setting on Mariano Rivera's unsurpassed career as the last active player to wear No. 42. AP Photo/Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press

NEW YORK -- Mariano Rivera, the Yankees' Hall of Fame-bound closer, keeps insisting that he expects his overriding emotion during this, his last season, to be joy. But he also knows that being the last major leaguer still wearing Jackie Robinson's No. 42 every day of the season confers on him an extra distinction that carries the import of his career's end far beyond New York: When he goes, Robinson's number will go into retirement with him. The only exception will be the one day each year -- April 15th -- when big league field personnel everywhere wear 42 as a tribute to Robinson on the anniversary of his 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

But Rivera predicts that even when the occasion arrives on Monday (or Tuesday for teams like the Yankees, who are off on Monday), he will look around, soak it in and feel the same as he always has.

"I think it's beautiful," Rivera says, citing the once-a-year visual of all his fellow 42s-for-a-day mingling around the batting cage, running onto the diamond, standing at attention as the national anthem is played, or hustling around the field once the games begin. Rivera grew up in Panama knowing about Latin stars Juan Marichal and Roberto Clemente before he became aware of Robinson. He likes the symbolism of all these latter-day 42s -- be they African-Americans or whites or Latinos -- standing on equal footing. The tribute to Robinson is meant to ensure that no one forgets that this wasn't always so.

"Jackie Robinson was a great man," Rivera said over the weekend before a game against the Baltimore Orioles. "I have always said that wearing this number is a privilege and a great responsibility … to represent what Jackie represented for us, as a minority, and for all of baseball in general, it's tremendous. For me, it's just a privilege to wear and to try to keep that legacy. It makes me want to be at my best. And that's what I tried to do my whole career."

When commissioner Bud Selig declared in 1997 that Robinson's number would no longer be issued -- it was the 50th anniversary of the day Robinson integrated baseball -- Rivera was among 13 players still wearing 42.

Most of the others were workaday players -- Kirk Reuter, Jose Lima, Butch Huskey. The exception was Mo Vaughn, the burly first baseman who burned bright for a few years and won the 1995 American League Most Valuable Player award before flaming out with the Mets. "Everybody else started retiring," says Rivera, now 43, "and pretty soon I was the only one left, you know? And so it was even more responsibility. And I learned it was more than just the number."

Since 2003, Rivera has been the only 42. And his Yankees teammate, Robinson Cano, finds a sort of poetic justice in that.

"Things happen for a reason," Cano has said.

Cano meant that Rivera is the perfect combination of grace and class, baseball ability and unstinting professionalism to still be standing when the crowd winnowed down to just two: Mo, the greatest closer and one of the best teammates there's ever been, and Robinson, the most important athlete of the 20th century to many people. Robinson was different than Joe Louis, because he wasn't allowed to fight back against the elements in the game that resisted him. He was less overtly political at his career's start than Muhammad Ali, who didn't splash down big until years after Robinson arrived with the Dodgers, but Ali certainly owed a lot to Robinson's groundbreaking example.

But again, Rivera didn't know all that. Not at first. Unlike Huskey, a native Oklahoman who has said he vowed to wear Robinson's number after reading a book about him in elementary school, and unlike Cano, a Dominican whose father -- also a ballplayer -- named him after Robinson, there is no special backstory about how Rivera came to wear 42.

Rivera is a fisherman's son from a tiny village in Panama. In 1995, he was just trying to stick with the Yankees' big league club after arm surgery. When a Yankees' equipment man handed him his 42 game jersey that spring, his only thought was that it signified that he'd made the club. And at first -- don't laugh -- he was a spot starter before being converted to reliever the following year.

In the 19 big league seasons since then, Rivera has grown in stature. He's also grown into a deeper understanding about Robinson, and what wearing the number means to him, not just to everyone else. He says he'd consciously picked up his efforts to find out more about Robinson by the time he became the last No. 42 and even more people were asking him to put what Robinson meant into perspective.

"I definitely tried to learn more about him," Rivera says. "Everything. Just everything. The community work. The man that he was. I always used to talk with Don Zimmer when Zimmer was here. He played with him. Zimmer told me that Jackie took care of him, because Jackie was already established and Zimmer, he was just coming up. It was amazing. He always said to me, 'The man was generous. Not just a great ballplayer.'"

There are countless more stories of how Robinson's influence rippled outward like that. And that influence hasn't stopped even all these years later, though Robinson died too young from a heart attack in 1972 at the age of 53.

Willie Mays? He once told the New York Times, "'Without Jackie, I wouldn't have gotten out of Birmingham. They knew Jackie was hardheaded and they said, 'You give us two years, and we'll give all your friends a chance.' If he had gotten in a fight within those two years, it would have been all over."

Ralph Branca? He tells a story of how Robinson consoled him after he gave up the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" to Bobby Thomson in the one-game playoff that put the Giants in the 1951 World Series instead of the Dodgers.

Other stories about things Robinson said are now inextricably engraved into the history of the game. How he once said, "There's not an American in this country free until every one of us is free." How he believed, "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."

Rivera lives by that last statement, too.

He is the best closer in history, bar none. But the serenity that Rivera has displayed all these years on the mound? That is not an act. It springs from a deep place that has little to do with baseball, and more to do with who he is, and, he would say, his devout religious faith.

So when he keeps insisting with a smile that he does not expect to be sad during this, his last season, he deserves to be believed. He is, at heart, still the fisherman's son who grew up using a milk carton for a glove, a man who knows what real hard work means. And he will not be one of those old ballplayers who sits around in retirement counting his money, telling war stories and collecting backslaps. Fame and fortune have not put his view of the world so out of scale that he seeks out only famous rich people like him.

Rivera wants to do even more work through his church once he retires. If you ask him, he'll say he'd like to see Pittsburgh right fielder Roberto Clemente's No. 21 retired across baseball, too, because of the groundbreaking work that Clemente did for Latino players after he arrived in the majors in 1955, eight seasons after Robinson did. Clemente was still an active player when he died at age 39 in the crash of an overloaded plane that was ferrying aid from his native Puerto Rico to earthquake victims in Nicaragua on Dec. 31, 1972. The following year, he was the first Latin player elected into the Hall of Fame.

"One day it might happen [for Clemente's 21] -- we need to continue pushing toward that," Rivera says. "I'd like to see that happen. I mean, he was a great player. And he died helping people. Imagine. Just imagine."

Rivera also has a plan for this final season of his.

In each stop of his farewell tour, he has somewhat quietly but very intentionally decided to visit with people (nearly all of them strangers) who have done something extraordinary themselves, who make the games possible on game day, or perhaps who just love their baseball team as much as he's loved playing all these years. It's a unique idea -- "I want to say thank you to the people nobody ever sees," he explains -- and he mentioned it at the same spring training news conference where he said he was retiring. He asks them questions, tells them stories about himself.

"Mariano's basic idea was he didn't want to just go to all these places one last time and go through ceremonies just to honor him," says Yankees media relations director Jason Zillo, who is helping Rivera organize things.

So far in the young season, the Yankees have traveled to Detroit and Cleveland. While in Motown, Rivera met with folks like a groundskeeper who had worked for the Tigers for more than 40 years, and a war veteran who survived several tours of duty. In Cleveland, he held a private Q&A in a room with about 30 or so people -- everyone from office workers to the press box crew, game-day laborers to a fan named John Adams who's been beating a drum to rally the Indians during games since 1973.

"Where's the drummer?" Rivera said when he arrived.

Adams identified himself.

"You da man!" Rivera laughed. Then he told Adams how much he respected his day-in, day-out devotion to the team, and said there was something he just had to know.

"Do you start hitting the drum faster when you're upset?" Rivera needled.

"Well, you have given me so much stress over years!" Adams shot back, laughing.

Rivera says he is ready to get on to the next phase of his life, "But I'm going to enjoy this first, because you only retire once." And Robinson's widow, Rachel Robinson, 90, has said she counts herself among those who will feel a twinge when Rivera, the last of the everyday 42s, goes, even if Rivera himself keeps smiling and assuring people, "It's time."

"He carried himself with dignity and grace," Robinson recently told ESPNNewYork.com's Ian O'Connor, "and that made carrying the number a tribute to Jack … 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 isn't alone. But Rivera -- the ultimate closer -- keeps serenely harking back to one thought now that the curtain is about to fall: Why can't this be beautiful, too?

It figures.

Baseball has never had anyone better at knowing how to end things just right.