He is the last major-league baseball player to regularly wear 42, Jackie Robinson's number. There is poetry in that, dignity, class and professionalism, too.


Mariano Rivera, 43, baseball's greatest reliever and one of its finest men, is retiring after this season. The Yankees closer, with more saves than anyone in history, is closing it out.


That meant not stepping down after he blew out his right knee last May while shagging batting practice fly balls in Kansas City. That meant coming back in 2013, going out on his terms, on top, same Mo as ever.


And Tuesday, before the Yankees played the Rays at Tropicana Field, it meant another stop on Rivera's farewell tour, a truly touching one.


In a storage area down the left-field line, not far from the Yankees clubhouse, a meeting area was arranged, blue curtains and folding chairs. Some of those who gathered didn't need the folding chairs. They had their wheelchairs.


They were patients from the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, they were the real deal, our true heroes, veterans young and old, from too many wars — and they were baseball fans. Mariano Rivera wanted to meet them.


“I don't want to go without saying thank you,” Rivera told them.


“This is a dream come true,” said navy veteran Manny Fernandez, who grew up in New York. “He's an amazing pitcher, but a more amazing person.”


Rivera plans to make a stop like this in each of the stadiums he visits in his final season, talking to fans, or simply folks who work behind the scenes for ball clubs.


In Cleveland, he met with longtime Indians employees as well as John Adams, the super fan who for 40 years has beat a drum in the bleachers at Indians games. The Rays helped set up Tuesday's meeting.


The tour is Rivera's idea. He worked with Jason Zillo, Yankees director of communications and media relations.


“This is kind of unprecedented,” Zillo said.


“It really fits who he is,” said Yankees pitching coach and former Rays manager Larry Rothschild. “It's unique.”


Tuesday, Rivera took questions from the veterans. He wanted to know about them. He smiled for pictures and handshakes and gave every one of his new friends an autographed baseball.


Among them was World War II veteran Edward Tomassine, 93, who fought under George Patton in North Africa and Sicily. And a woman of a son blinded in battle, who told Rivera, “Thank you for the love you have.”


“We go on the field to play,” Rivera said. “They go on the field to defend us, to fight for us, to give their life for us.”