Jeter earned right to enjoy final season on his terms

Derek Jeter deserves a fond farewell as he chases another championship.

Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

Derek Jeter had a choice: Continue getting asked, day after day, if this was his last hurrah. Or take a season-long victory lap, complete with tributes in every city and an uncomfortable focus on the individual instead of the team.

Once Jeter decided to retire after the 2014 season, it would be one form of distraction or another. And rather than live a lie, continually telling reporters that he had not made a decision, Jeter chose to embrace the concept of a grand finale and all that it entailed.

Even to a player as laser-focused as Jeter, the choice was obvious. The stunner was that he made his Wednesday announcement seemingly out of nowhere, issuing a statement on his personal Facebook account, of all things. Who knew Jeter even was on Facebook? Who imagined he would write his own farewell, a 737-word opus, no less?

Read the statement, though, and it all starts to make sense. Jeter was typically gracious, starting and ending by saying thank you. And, as always, he was in control, explaining his decision in his own words rather than allowing others to interpret his thoughts for him.

Jeter wrote, "For the last 20 years I’ve been completely focused on two goals: Playing my best and helping the Yankees win. That means that for 365 days a year, my every thought and action were geared toward that goal. It’s now time for something new."

DEREK JETER

Well, not just yet.

"I want to soak in every moment of every day this year, so I can remember it for the rest of my life," Jeter wrote. "And most importantly, I want to help the Yankees reach our goal of winning another championship."

In other words, he’s going to have it both ways, accepting the adulation he deserves while fighting like crazy, one last time, to win every game.

Jeter never was one for hypotheticals, never one to focus on anything but the next game. Now, at times, he will take a deep breath, reflect upon his Hall of Fame career, even expose his softer side. But as long as he is healthy — a big assumption, to be sure — does anyone seriously expect he will be a lesser Derek Jeter?

Heck, Jeter saw first-hand last season how gracefully Mariano Rivera managed his farewell, handling every request, embracing every honor — and still remaining an elite closer. The challenge is perhaps greater for Jeter, who at 39 will attempt a comeback at shortstop after appearing in just 17 games last season due to ankle problems. Fans, teammates and even opponents will want to see him go out on top. And the degree of difficulty is daunting.

That, however, is a concern for another day; Jeter, more than ever, will live in the moment. Some will note that his send-off will dovetail nicely with Alex Rodriguez’s season-long suspension; never again will Jeter need to face that distraction. But frankly, it’s doubtful Jeter gave his old rival much consideration. A-Rod is a tabloid mess, Jeter a one-man Mt. Rushmore.

A more telling aspect of Jeter’s announcement is that it seemingly took many with the Yankees by surprise, though principal owner Hal Steinbrenner said Jeter informed him Wednesday morning of his decision. Perhaps Jeter wanted to keep as tight a circle as possible. Or perhaps he remembered the Yankees went public with certain aspects of his contract negotiations in 2010 and feared his big news would leak.

No, a happy ending is not assured. Jeter might not hit well enough to remain at the top of the lineup or field well enough to remain at shortstop; the Yankees might again miss the playoffs. But who knows? Jeter took a realistic view of the end of his career by announcing that this would be his last season. He might be equally realistic if shortcomings emerge in his game.

In any case, I’€™ll leave you with a story from 2009, after the Yankees had beaten the Angels to win the American League Championship Series in six games. FOX had broadcast the series, and I interviewed Jeter live on the field at Yankee Stadium immediately after the game.

It turned out to be one of the most upsetting moments of my career.

I can’t say I know Jeter well; I don’t know that any reporter does. He is always accommodating but rarely revealing. Generally, I ask him questions only that I absolutely need answered. Small talk is not usually his thing.

I started our interview by asking what I thought was a perfectly reasonable question: ‘Derek, you guys have not been to the World Series since 2003, you have not won since 2000. How ready are you to change that?"

To my surprise, Jeter sort of snapped.

AROUND THE HORN

"It’s great you bring up the negative," he said. "We’re just trying to enjoy this, man. I mean it’s not easy to get to this point in the season and umm, you know, this team has been great all year, it’s been great the first two rounds, hopefully we can play one more great series."

The rest of the interview went fine, but I was baffled and somewhat embarrassed that Jeter reacted the way he did –€“ "boy, he must really like you," someone at FOX said the next day, sarcastically. So, I approached Jeter before the start of the World Series, seeking to explain myself.

When I told Jeter that my question was not meant to be negative, he looked at me, surprised. He said that he didn’t mean to direct his frustration toward me. He was just bothered that so many people had been questioning the Yankees, and that was why he reacted the way he did. More than once, he apologized.

Fans probably are not surprised Jeter would respond with such class, but the look in his eye, the tone in his voice, the sincerity of his apology — it was almost a different side of him. It was the side he showed Wednesday with his heartfelt statement, a side he surely will display more often as he counts down to the end of his career.

Derek Jeter had a choice with how he wanted to retire, and he is choosing to enjoy the moment. As special as Rivera’s farewell tour was, this one might be even better.

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