"Everybody wants to win, but he always asked for your best. He didn't want mediocrity or 99 percent," Rivera said Friday before the Yankees' first game since Steinbrenner's death Tuesday. "He always wanted perfection. And I always want that from myself."
Rivera wound up pitching a scoreless ninth and picking up the victory when Nick Swisher's walk-off single gave the Yankees a 5-4 win over the Rays. "We had a job to do. He would have said that: 'We've got a job to do,' '' Rivera said.
For a change, Rivera was asked to come on early in the evening as well as late. After batting practice, a team official asked him to walk to home plate during the pregame ceremony and place two roses there. "A lot of things went through my mind,'' Rivera said. "I wanted to see him for a little bit more with us. It was a special moment and sadness at the same time.''
Rivera said his fondness for Steinbrenner began before he made the transition from struggling starter to Hall of Fame-bound icon. The pitcher thought back to his days in the Yankees' minor-league system.
"When The Boss was there, you knew The Boss was there. I don't know about others, but for me, I loved that," said a member of the last generation of Yankees to have grown up with and known Steinbrenner. "He wanted to do everything for us, his players. He put us in his hotel. It was wonderful. Everything was wonderful.
"I always will think about him as long as I play baseball, and after I play baseball. This team that he put together for us, that's tremendous. Giving us the opportunity to win, he didn't care how much he spent."
The Boss was generous with his time, his advice and the luxury suite spread. The fabled closer said Steinbrenner used to stop by the clubhouse in the fourth inning and offer hamburgers. "I said, 'No, Boss. No, no, no, no. I have to pitch,' " he said.
"I said if we win, you take me and my family back home to Panama on your plane. If we lose, I'll take you anywhere you want for dinner. He said OK, that's fair," Rivera said. "We won, thank God. I think the second day after we won, he called and made sure I was ready for the trip to Panama."
Rivera never did see the vintage George who belittled the likes of Ken Clay and Jim Beattie. The Boss never yelled at him, he said, after he blew a save and lost Game 7 of the 2001 World Series in Arizona. On the other hand, the pitcher rarely gave Steinbrenner reason to rail. Rivera was nearly flawless for a boss who demanded perfection.
"That," Rivera said, "is how I will always remember him."
When he was asked if the patch on every Yankee's uniform shirt will be a strong reminder, the closer had the final word: "I'll always remember him without the patch.''