One of the best things about spring training is the way that it is a time of hope for every team.
Even fans of the Astros, Mets and Orioles are free to spend a little time dreaming about how things could break their way just often enough to make the summer something other than the death march that most people are predicting for their teams. Everyone's record is spotless, every player is claiming to be in the best shape of their lives and all things are possible.
Mariano Rivera has been the reason for much hopefulness around the Yankees for his entire career, but he chose his arrival to camp this year for a moment that doesn't quite fit with the spring training ethos of eternal optimism.
Rivera came to Tampa sounding like a man who is ready to ride off into the sunset at the end of the 2012 season.
Rivera answered questions about his future by saying that he's made an "irrevocable" decision about whether or not to sign another contract with the Yankees after this season. He said it is hard to be away from his family and that he has no desire to hang around should his skills start to deteriorate.
"I don't want to be seen like that," Rivera said. "It is important for me to leave the game on top if God allows me to do that, just finish on top, knowing I did what I was called to do."
Those skills haven't shown any deterioration at this point, so we know that's not driving Rivera's thought process. He's been as good, if not better, over the last few years as he was 10 or 12 years ago and the annual attempts to pinpoint the end of the Rivera mystique always go up in smoke when the cutter resumes slashing its humiliating swath through American League bats.
Everything else he said points to the time when "Enter Sandman" will go back to being just a Metallica song and the ninth inning will become the kind of guessing game that it is in so many other ballparks around the major leagues. A decision to return to baseball when you don't have a contract for the next season hardly seems like something you'd describe as irrevocable, after all.
Many athletes have hinted at retirement or even gone through the motions of retiring before winding up back in uniform. There have been no hints to this point that Rivera has the Brett Favre gene that demands people fawn over him, though, and he's never really been one to make statements that he didn't back up with actions.
Viewing his words through that prism makes it hard to draw any conclusion other than that this is the start of Rivera's farewell tour. While we all knew that this day would come and that it was coming sooner rather than later at this point in Rivera's career, it doesn't make it any easier to contemplate a baseball world without Rivera in it.
There will be plenty of optimistic notes from Tampa before April rolls around, but none of them will feel quite as important as the one we got on Monday. Savor Rivera this season because it sure sounds like this is going to be your last chance to watch him on anything but Yankee Classics.