By Steve Keating
PANAMA CITY, Panama (Reuters) - Major League Baseball and the New York Yankees returned to Panama for the first time in 67 years on Saturday, offering one final goodbye to Mariano Rivera and bringing the career of the game's greatest closer full circle.
Back where it all began, Rivera, who retired at the end of last season with a record 652 career saves, threw a ceremonial pitch to launch a two-day tribute for the man fans know simply as "Mo".
The Yankees are playing two spring training games against the Miami Marlins this weekend.
Appearing from the outfield darkness on Saturday, Rivera walked to the mound as he had done 952 times as baseball's most feared closer, with Metallica's 'Sandman' thumping over the loud speakers and the capacity crowd on their feet cheering.
Since the Yankees arrived in Panama on Thursday, Rivera has worn many caps, MLB and Panamanian ambassador, master of ceremonies, host of a charity fund-raising dinner one evening and tour guide another morning, taking his former team mates on a visit to the Panama Canal.
"I think for Mo it has been really special," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi. "To bring any Major League team to your home town it would be special for anyone.
"But what baseball has meant to Mo and the country of Panama and all he has given back, this is special.
"He will never forget this. I know he wants this to continue and to go on every year."
The Yankees had, in fact, planned to kick off Rivera's retirement party in Panama last season but could not secure the necessary agreements.
The delay, however, only seems to have strengthened the bond between Rivera and his homeland.
Now out of Major League Baseball, Rivera has focused a great deal of his energy on giving back to Panama, the two-game Legend Series the realization of a personal dream and gift to fans.
Not since 1947 when the Yankees played the Dodgers has MLB made an appearance in baseball-crazy Panama and the Yankees brought along many of their top players for the occasion, including captain Derek Jeter, pitcher C.C. Sabathia, slugger Carlos Beltran and Alfonso Soriano.
"It's always great to see Mo, I grew up with him," said Jeter, who is preparing to launch his farewell parade having announced earlier that this season will be his last.
"I'm well aware of that (what Rivera means to Panama), I've been around town the last couple of times I was here and you think of Panamanian baseball the person who comes to mind is Mo and people here appreciate him for that."
Rod Carew Stadium, named after another beloved Panamanian Major Leaguer, was built in 1999 and is already shows signs of rough life.
Garbage rolls like tumbleweeds across the dusty hills beyond the outfield fence while an unfinished apartment building looks down from above.
Yet this too, believes Rivera, could be a field of dreams for young Panamanians wanting to follow him to MLB.
"I hope these games can help youth of Panama and motivate them by seeing professionals play," Rivera told MLB.com. "They need to study, of course, but also do sports, and stay out of the streets.
"Baseball is not easy, but it's a beautiful sport and I know this is going to be something spectacular.
"I hope the country takes advantage of it and enjoys something we have not seen in years."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)