One last summer? Let's hope Jeter enjoys it

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
5:00
PM ET
Derek JeterMike Carlson/Getty ImagesHere's hoping Derek Jeter can allow himself to enjoy his final season as much as his friend and teammate Mariano Rivera was able to enjoy his.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Without explicitly spelling them out, Derek Jeter laid out some lofty goals for himself and his team for this, his final season in uniform.

He said he thought he could play the way he did in 2012. That was the year he appeared in all but three games for the Yankees, batted .316 and led all of baseball in hits with 216.

He said he was in the best shape of his life, without mentioning that his next birthday, on June 26, will be the big 4-0.

And he said he expects no less from the 2013 season than he has from each of the 19 that preceded it, which in Jeter-speak means he expects the Yankees to win a World Series championship.

But of all the goals Jeter set for himself, explicitly and implicitly, there is one I hope he reaches, because it is perhaps the only one he has not achieved in a career that has seen just about everything else.

I hope Derek Jeter can allow himself to enjoy his final season as much as his friend and teammate Mariano Rivera was able to enjoy his.

I hope that for once in his career, he can enjoy Derek Jeter as much as Yankees fans, and really, all true baseball fans, have for the past two decades.

And if you know anything about Jeter, you know for him, that will be the most difficult goal of all.

“I think it’ll be hard for him, I really do," Joe Girardi said when asked if he thought Jeter was capable of simply enjoying a baseball season, rather than living, eating, breathing and sleeping it.

“I think maybe he’ll sit back a little bit at times, like when you talk about, it’s the last day of spring training, or the last time you go to a city for the year, and he might soak it in a little bit," Girardi said. “But I don’t think that’s his nature, and his focus will be winning like always."

That laser-like focus surely made Jeter the player he became -- a five-time world champion, a member of the 3,000-hit club and a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer.

But it also surely robbed him, if not of the sheer joy of playing -- Jeter certainly always looks to be having a good time on the field -- but of some of the ability to step back and admire what he and the Yankees have done since he broke in as the 1996 American League Rookie of the Year.

In a news conference notable for its trademark guardedness, even Jeter admitted as much. Although he has loved the journey, “I never really enjoyed the ride," he said.

“I didn’t enjoy it as much as I should have," Jeter acknowledged, in a remarkable moment of candor for this most private and self-protective superstar. “But it worked for me."

By his own admission, Jeter’s parents urged him back in 2012 to savor his pursuit of 3,000 hits and the acclaim that would come with it, and Girardi told him, “Just enjoy the process, because you only get to do it once."

But that chase became something of an ordeal for Jeter, not only because he was battling a calf injury in the weeks leading up to it, but also because everywhere the Yankees went, a swarm of out-of-town reporters followed, eager to record his feelings as he approached the milestone.

And as anyone who has followed Jeter for any length of time knows, he hates talking about himself or his individual accomplishments, as if to indulge in such things would betray a fatal selfishness or a loss of his all-important focus on the ultimate goal.

Things like that were for the offseason, or preferably, for some future year when, in retirement, he could finally allow himself to look back and actually think about what he had done. In the meantime, there was always another at-bat to focus on, another game, another series, another postseason.

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Wednesday, Jeter vowed that this season would be different.

“I want to enjoy each and every day throughout the course of the year, which has been difficult for me to do that over the course of my career because I always try to focus on what can you can do next -- getting to the next goal, and the next goal," he said. “[But] it goes by quickly. You almost blink and it’s 20 years later."

There was a poignancy to Jeter’s acknowledgment of the passage of time, something he always sought to deny. You could hear it in his regrets for what he had missed through 20 baseball summers (“Twenty-three if you count the minor leagues," he said), and in his never-before-expressed-desire to settle down and start a family.

But as Girardi pointed out, a Derek Jeter who was concerned about those things before might never have been the Derek Jeter we have to come to know. He lived to play and played to live. Now, he seems to have come to the realization that there is more to life than baseball.

“I have the utmost respect for all these guys that have kids and families," he said. “Being away, I have a young nephew, and you miss so many things. I don’t know how you guys do it, really. So I look forward to that. So there are some things I look forward to doing."

In the meantime, he will play baseball for one more season, and no doubt will be treated to the kind of yearlong going-away party that baseball threw for Rivera, who eagerly took part in it and clearly loved just about every minute.

You wonder if Jeter will be able to do the same. You wonder if the swarm of reporters greeting him in every road city wanting to talk about his impending retirement will wear on him, and if the pregame celebrations in his honor will make him feel as if he is compromising his cherished physical and mental preparation.

You wonder if he will chafe under that constant spotlight, if only because for the first time in his career, he will allow the focus to be on him rather than the team.

“It will be fun," he said. “I’m going to have fun tomorrow, I’m going to have fun the entire season. And I plan on having a good year."

For the past 19 years, fun has always come secondary to winning for Derek Jeter.

Here’s hoping that in his 20th year, Jeter can finally have both.
Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Jacoby Ellsbury
BA HR RBI R
.277 10 55 58
OTHER LEADERS
HRM. Teixeira 20
RBIJ. Ellsbury 55
RB. Gardner 77
OPSB. Gardner .788
WM. Tanaka 12
ERAM. Tanaka 2.51
SOM. Tanaka 135