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Timing is perfect for Yankees' Panama tribute to Mariano Rivera

Former Yankees pitcher and Panamanian Mariano Rivera smiles

Former Yankees pitcher and Panamanian Mariano Rivera smiles during a visit by the team to the Panama Canal's Miraflores Locks in Panama City on March 14, 2014. Credit: Getty Images / Rodrigo Arangura

PANAMA CITY - Maybe it turned out best this way.

Discussions to bring the Yankees to Panama fell through a little more than three years ago, denying Mariano Rivera an opportunity to pitch in his native country while still active.

That disappointed Rivera at the time, but club president Randy Levine now believes it worked out just fine. "I actually think it turned out better this way because Mo can enjoy it more," Levine said Saturday.

The Yankees and Marlins began their two-game series to honor Rivera Saturday night at Rod Carew Stadium amid sounds more representative of a World Cup soccer match than a baseball game. The cacophony of bells, whistles and, of course, vuvuzelas started in the parking lots hours before the gates opened at Rod Carew Stadium, then continued, at an increasing decibel level, as the sellout crowd of 27,000 filed in.

Just before game time, Rivera, wearing a pinstriped No. 42, emerged from a swinging gate in right-center, accompanied by "Enter Sandman" and the adulatory screams of his countrymen and countrywomen, and headed toward the mound.

"I can't describe the feelings I was going through seeing my people in that moment," Rivera said. "It was spectacular."

David Robertson, heir to the legendary closer's throne, then trotted out and set up behind home plate to receive the ceremonial first pitch, a "passing the torch" moment, Rivera said.

Rivera, who retired after last season after posting a record 652 saves, said Saturday night put an official cap on his farewell tour, which started during spring training last year when he announced his intent to retire. "It's full circle. It's done," he said.

And of all the tributes he received at ballparks throughout the majors last season, Saturday night stood alone. "This one is different. This one is home," Rivera said. "There's nothing better than home. It's a gift."

Derek Jeter was among those in the Yankees' traveling party, and the shortstop -- who was in Saturday night's lineup -- has said coming was a no-brainer. "This is important to him,'' Jeter said, "so it's important to me."

Rivera said that relationship is one of the most significant in his life. He added, "Derek has been my brother, is my brother, will be my brother until the day I die."

The trip has been about more than baseball, particularly for the Yankees, who arrived here Thursday night.

Levine was part of a group that toured the Panama Canal Friday morning, a behind-the-scenes tour led by Rivera, whose love affair for his homeland was on full display.

"If you were at the Panama Canal yesterday, it was quite a sight," Levine said. "He knows everybody in this country. He was leading the tour, he was kissing babies, he was doing everything. And I think if he was a player, he couldn't have been able to enjoy it and participate as much as he did. So I think it all turned out great."

Putting the trip together required the cooperation of a handful of entities, including MLB, the Players Association, the government of Panama and the Marlins, as the Yankees needed a team to play.

"This is an honor to be here and to bring my team down here to honor Mariano," Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton said. "That's what we're here for. It's huge to this country and this city. I never got a chance to know [Rivera] personally or Derek, but they were guys I grew up watching and helped me love the game that I play now. It's just an honor to be here and I'm grateful to be a part of it."

The Yankees last played a game in Panama in February 1946. Jeter, sitting on the dais Saturday morning in the lobby of the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower, praised Rivera, though he couldn't resist a dig at his longtime friend and teammate.

"I can't think of a better person to be honored than Mariano," he said. "I'm happy that Major League Baseball has come back here for the first time since '46."

Jeter paused and smiled.

"When Mo was a young child," he said to laughter, Rivera's loudest of all.

Since the trip was announced, Joe Girardi has been asked about it possibly disrupting spring training, something he's consistently dismissed.

"A wonderful closing touch to just an unbelievable career," Girardi said. "I've loved every minute of this trip."

Except for one thing: The Yankees were held hitless in a 5-0 loss to the Marlins. "It wasn't the historic night I envisioned,'' Girardi said. "You never want to get no-hit, I don't care what game it is, what level. You don't ever want to see that.''

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