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SportsColumnistsAnthony Rieber

Mariano Rivera Retirement Tour kicks off with, what else, a save!

Mariano Rivera of the Yankees pitches in the

Mariano Rivera of the Yankees pitches in the ninth inning against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium. (April 4, 2013) Credit: Jim McIsaac

The Yankees absolutely MUST make the playoffs this season.

If they don't, Mariano Rivera's unparalleled career will end at Minute Maid Park in Houston. Because that's where the Yankees' final regular-season game of 2013 will be played on Sept. 29.

The best reliever ever simply cannot deliver his final pitch in what probably will be a near-empty Texas tin can named for an orange juice company against baseball's most talentless team.

It has to be at Yankee Stadium, with a packed house, with cellphone cameras going off and a cutter shattering the bat of a lefthanded hitter.

Why are we having these thoughts? Because the Rivera Retirement Tour kicked off Thursday night in the Bronx. And from the looks of it, it's going to be a season-long celebration whenever Rivera appears, both at home and away.

Rivera, pitching for the first time since last April 30, saved the Yankees' first win of the season, a 4-2 victory over the Red Sox. Rivera allowed a run but still collected career save No. 609, the most in baseball history.

It was Rivera's first appearance since he suffered a season-ending knee injury while shagging fly balls on the Kansas City warning track last May 3. It was emotional for what was left of the crowd of 40,611, both because he was returning and also getting ready to say goodbye.

It was emotional for Rivera, too.

"There's a lot of emotions there," he said. "But at the same time, you have to control that. You have to be able to do that because I still have to finish the game. But it was wonderful. You went from almost a year [out] to be on the mound and get your job done. Especially here at home."

During spring training, Rivera was treated like baseball royalty (which he is) in each of his seven (scoreless) appearances. And it's not just Yankees fans who are caught up.

His last spring training game was the Yankees' exhibition tilt in Washington against the Nationals last Friday. The ovation he received when he entered the game showed there's one thing Washington can agree on: Rivera will be missed.

Extend that out to the Yankees' regular-season road games. Just as with Chipper Jones last season, Rivera likely will be feted in his final appearance in every city the Yankees visit.

Even Boston.

"I think he'll understand how much he's been appreciated around the game as he goes through this year," manager Joe Girardi said. "I know Mo understands how much he's appreciated around here. What we've seen has been pretty special for a long time. I think Mo will get a much better appreciation of what people think about him as time goes on. Sometimes when you're playing your rivals, they're not going to clap for you. But in this situation, I think you'll hear some cheers from opposing fans."

On Thursday night, it was Yankees fans, of course, who got throaty when Rivera jogged in and went nuts when he fanned rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. to save an Andy Pettitte win for the record 69th time in the regular season.

"Obviously I feel real, real secure and good about things whenever I see that guy running in from the bullpen," Pettitte said. "It's special. It'll be special to watch him this year knowing this will be it. After this, he won't be closing any games for us. I'll savor it as much as I can."

As will fans around baseball. They should savor it because they might never see it again. Even if it does have to end in Houston and not the Bronx.

New York Sports