Ramon Ramirez first met Mariano Rivera as a 22-year-old relief pitcher at the Yankees' spring-training complex in 2004. Ramirez had grown up as an outfielder in the Dominican Republic but turned himself into a pitcher to propel his career forward, watching some of the greats of the game in an effort to learn the basics of pitching.
One of those greats was Pedro Martinez, like Ramirez a native of the Dominican Republic.
Another was Mariano Rivera.
"Sometimes, in my mind, I wanted to be like this guy because he's unbelievable," Ramirez said. "I want to live my life like that. ... I want to work and be a professional and be a player like that."
A year after the Yankees signed Ramirez away from the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in Japan, they added him to their 40-man roster and invited him to their major-league spring training camp. He'd accumulated a 5.21 ERA in 14 Single-A starts the previous year but had fanned almost a hitter an inning in his first season in the minor leagues.
Upon his arrival in Tampa, Fla., he found himself sharing a clubhouse with one of his heroes, the greatest relief pitcher in the history of baseball.
Ramirez didn't approach Rivera, of course. As much as he might have wanted to pick his brain for pointers about pitching, about playing professional baseball about life, he didn't dare. Rivera was a legend already -- he'd won four World Series rings and accumulated almost 250 career saves.
Ramirez was a nobody. He was in awe being in the presence of Rivera, let alone trying to talk to him.
Rivera, though, broke the ice -- just the way he does often with some of the younger pitchers in the organization.
"I was one of the best players in the world -- that's how I feel when he talked to me," Ramirez said. "I don't know about anybody (else), but I feel like that with him. When he talked to me, it was like, 'I saw Mariano Rivera. He's one of the best closers in the world. Maybe he doesn't want to talk to any players.' But it's so different. He talked with me. He talked with the young guys -- not just with me, but with everybody."
The two didn't spent all that much time talking, but Ramirez made sure to pay attention to just about everything he did on and off the field.
"For me, what entered my mind was, 'I want to learn something about this guy because he's a professional outside the game and inside the game,'" Ramirez said. "I don't know how he seems at home, but in the game, he's one of the best to me. He's one of the best closers and one of the best pitchers and one of the best professionals. ...
"When I see this guy, I'm like, '(Shoot), I need to learn how I can be a professional, how I can be a professional in my life. This guy, he works so hard at pitching. He's got everything: He's a family guy, and he works hard. He's got big respect from people. This is the big point, about life in the big picture."
They even talked a little pitching.
"He told me, he told a lot of guys: 'The pitcher has to have control. Make a strike. Make the first pitch a strike. Make the first out of the game. This is what you have to do to be a pitcher,'" Ramirez said.
More importantly, they talked about life.
"Sometimes you can see some players thinking, like, 'I'm the best baseball player,'" Ramirez said. "But he'd say, 'Everything will pass one day. You need to do the best you can in your life.'"