CLEVELAND — Before Mariano Rivera answered questions from Cleveland Indians employees he wanted to personally thank on his last visit to Progressive Field, the greatest closer in history had a request of his own.
“Where’s the drummer?” Rivera asked.
He wanted to finally meet the man who has kept a steady sports beat in Cleveland for 40 years, the guy sitting at the top of the bleachers year after year pounding away to spark a rally.
“Right here,” John Adams said, raising one of his drum sticks so the New York legend could see him in the back of the room.
“Hey, you the man,” Rivera said. “Being loyal, being there day in and day out. I really respect that.”
“Thank you,” Adams said.
During his final trip around the majors, Rivera, who is retiring at the end of this, his 19th season with the Yankees, is taking time to visit with team employees who work behind the scenes. On Wednesday, Rivera met with 25 Indians employees — ushers, ticket salespersons, custodians and others — for 30 minutes before the Yankees played the Indians.
They came to say goodbye to Rivera, who answered questions, posed for pictures and handed out autographed baseballs to Clevelanders who seemed in awe of the classy gesture.
“I appreciate what you guys do,” Rivera said. “We see mostly what goes on when we’re on the field and not what’s going on behind the scenes. I wanted to say thank you for everything that you guys do, for the love and passion you have for your team. It doesn’t matter if you are a Yankee fan or not. You are a baseball fan.
“Thank you for being here. I know you are busy, but thank you for taking a little bit of time. I appreciate that.”
With that, Rivera said he was ready for questions and braced himself to be peppered by some Indians die-hards who have watched No. 42 come in and close out comebacks and dash more than a few special seasons in Cleveland.
“You can say whatever you want now,” Rivera said with a laugh.
It didn’t take long for one of the employees to ask Rivera for his favorite memories in Cleveland. In 1997, Rivera famously gave up a game-tying homer to Sandy Alomar Jr. in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the AL division series. The Indians went on to win and take the series in five games, denying the Yankees a chance to defend their World Series title.
For Rivera, it was a rare moment of failure.
But looking back, the 43-year-old said it provided motivation.
“Let me tell you something, if you think `97 was bad,” he said. “For me, it was the stone where I stepped to push forward because it helped me to become better. If that wouldn’t have happened, God only knows where I would have ended up. But because that happened, it pushed me to be better in moments like that and in situations like that.”
Rivera recalled facing dominant Cleveland teams of the 1990s, when the Indians had one of baseball’s most feared lineups with Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel and Albert Belle.
“All those years it was a battle here,” said Rivera, who announced on March 9 that this would be his final season. “It was never easy.”
Rivera, though, often made it look so. He has 609 career saves, and has converted his last 17 save opportunities against the Indians since 2003.
Rivera recoiled playfully when Adams told him he’s been drumming at Indians games since 1973.
“This is stress relief for me,” he told Rivera. “And you’ve given me a lot of stress.”
Rivera plans special goodbyes during the remainder of his final season. Last week in Detroit, he met with a longtime member of the grounds crew who worked at Tiger Stadium and Comerica Park. He also visited with other members of the Tigers’ extended family, faces not as recognizable as his own but people he feels indebted to.
He told them Edgar Martinez was the toughest hitter he ever faced, and he grew up worshipping Pele, the Brazilian soccer legend.
At the end of the visit inside the Indians’ press conference room, Rivera met with each of the employees, taking a moment to talk about their jobs, families, whatever they wanted to say.
Mary Forkapy has worked for the Indians since 1996, handling the team’s payroll. She shook hands with Rivera, posed for a picture with his valuable right arm around her shoulder and accepted a baseball with the signature of the future Hall of Famer.
“It was very genuine, very heartfelt, very nice,” she said of her one-on-one time with Rivera. “He told me I was a very important person.”
So did this soften her hatred toward the Yankees?
“A little,” she said.
As the group dwindled to just a few, Rivera shook hands with Adams, who tried to get the reliever to take a whack at his large drum.
“No, I can’t,” Rivera said. “That’s your thing.”