Those who know him best extoll virtues of Mariano Rivera

Mariano Rivera delivers a pitch in the bullpen

Mariano Rivera delivers a pitch in the bullpen during spring training at George Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla. (Feb. 19, 2013) (Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.)

TAMPA, Fla. -- Someone will take over as the Yankees' closer after this season, but general manager Brian Cashman made it clear Saturday that for his team and for baseball, there will not be another Mariano Rivera.

"He's irreplaceable,'' Cashman said moments after the 43-year-old announced his intention to retire after this season. "He is the greatest of all time . . . I've known him since he's been in the minor leagues. He's never changed once. You see a lot of players that get a lot of money and a lot of notoriety and become famous and change over time. He hasn't changed a bit.''

The reality of a final season with Rivera closing out Yankees victories was easier for teammates and coaches to accept because at this time a year ago, they thought they were facing that. Rivera said Friday that if he hadn't suffered a season-ending knee injury last May, 2012 would have been his last year. To that extent, it's a bonus to have him back.

"I'm actually appreciative that we get to enjoy him one more year,'' said manager Joe Girardi, who caught 73 of Rivera's saves, including his first in May 1996. "I was relaxed when he came into the game as a catcher and I'm relaxed as a manager. That's probably about the highest compliment you can pay a closer.''

Derek Jeter, a teammate of Rivera's since they were minor-leaguers together in 1993, said he's especially close with Rivera because they have an entire career of shared experiences, along with pitcher Andy Pettitte and former catcher Jorge Posada.

"They're like brothers. We've been through pretty much everything you can go through on a baseball field,'' Jeter said. "It'll be different when he's gone, just like it was different when Andy left and he came back, and last year was hard when Jorge wasn't here. We'll always be friends because we've been through so much.''

More than half of Rivera's 608 saves came with Posada catching, and he said Friday that with the preseason announcement, he likes the farewell-tour aspect of Rivera's final year.

"I'm so happy he is going out on his terms,'' Posada said in a statement released by the Yankees. "Now, every time he steps into a ballpark this year, teams and fans can celebrate and appreciate what he has meant to this great game we play.''

Pettitte, one of Rivera's closest teammates and friends, remembers him first as a fellow starter -- all 10 of Rivera's career starts came as a rookie in 1995 -- and said his initial scouting report on Rivera gave little hint of how great he would be as a closer.

"Pretty straight fastball. I want to say not a great slider. Real good command. It was like, 'He better come up with a little more stuff to be able to start in this league,' '' Pettitte recalled. "Then they threw him in the bullpen in '96, and that smooth delivery, how deceptive he was, how he hides the ball. It's amazing in one year to see the transformation, how he could dominate.''

"Mariano Rivera is arguably the greatest closer of all time," Alex Rodriguez told Newsday through his publicist. "But beyond that, he is a class act and a great human being. It has been an honor to be his teammate and his friend.''

Rivera said he intends to stay involved with the game after his pitching days are over and would like to continue working with minor-league prospects, something he's done throughout his career.

Cashman said that desire to give back to the sport stands out as much as Rivera's dominance on the mound, and should be a big part of how he's remembered by fans.

"He's a giver. He's always been a giver of himself,'' Cashman said. "The higher up the food chain you go, the more your life gets cluttered, you get busy, find reasons not to give back. Mo's not been that guy at all. He's going to be hard to replace in that clubhouse as much as on that field.''

With Steven Marcus

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