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First Pitch: Jeter a cool customer

5/8/2014

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- There will be a lot of moist eyes in a lot of ballparks as Derek Jeter makes his final swing through the league this season, but Jeter's eyes will not be among them.

The Yankees captain, as driven and determined an athlete as I have ever covered, is the original Cotton-Eye Joe.

For three nights, the crowd at Angel Stadium cheered him as if he were one of their own, and Wednesday night, in his final appearance at the Big A, the ovations were so raucous, the chants so insistent, the emotion so raw, you would have almost thought you were back in the Bronx, circa the turn of the millennium.

But Jeter accepted the cheers, chants, hugs and gift -- seeming especially happy about the stand-up paddleboard he was given -- and then he went out and gave it to the home team.

Jeter belted his first home run of the season -- the last of the Yankees' regulars to go deep, unless you count Ichiro Suzuki as a regular -- in the second inning, had a hard-hit infield single in the fourth and generally looked like his old self, as opposed to his "old" self, in the Yankees' 9-2 victory.

"You savor the moments; the fans have been great, the opposing players have said good things, so you remember those things," Jeter said. "At the same time, we’re trying to win games. You appreciate it, but you’re still competing and trying to win.”

That desire to win overpowers any sort of sentimentality or nostalgia Jeter might be tempted to indulge in along the way. I asked him Wednesday night if he needed to distance himself in some way from the emotion of these pregame ceremonies -- there have been two so far, here and in Houston the first week of the season -- to prepare to play, and it was as if I had asked him if he ever planned to walk on the moon.

"Nah," he said, "They [both] ended with plenty of time for me to get ready. It has not been an issue.”

What has been more of an issue for Jeter has been his perception, and that of his manager, that his somewhat slow start to the season had reawakened the "Jeter is too old" and "drop Jeter in the batting order" factions of the media and fan base. Both were out in force last week after he went 3-for-29 on the most recent homestand and finished it 0-for-14.

Jeter came this week to the town of Disneyland a little Grumpy, with a chip on his shoulder. He leaves having gone 5-for-11 in the three games, raising his batting average from .240 to a more respectable .262.

“You guys said I was old," he said. "Am I young now? I told you, you struggle sometimes and you feel good sometimes. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with age. I feel young, yes.”

It has everything to do, however, with answering doubters and disproving naysayers. This is what Jeter has always been about, and it's certainly not going to change as he approaches his 40th birthday a month and a half from now. If anything, that drive has only gotten stronger.

"Absolutely," Joe Girardi said when asked if he believed Jeter was motivated by questions concerning his age. "He's always been an extremely driven person. When he's struggling, he's going to do everything he can in his power to get going again, and that's what he did. He got going. All hitters are going to go through it, but when you're 39 it's always going to be a question."

What is not open to question is whether this "final season" -- Jeter says he dislikes the term "farewell tour" -- will be a distraction or a tug on his emotions. When it comes to playing baseball, he really doesn't have any. Unless, of course, the Yankees lose, and you know what emotion that brings.

So if you're waiting for the kind of heart-wrenching scene that marked Mariano Rivera's final appearance at Yankee Stadium, when he sobbed on the mound as Andy Pettitte and Cotton-Eye Jeter came out to remove him from his final game, you might go home disappointed.

Jeter is not that type and never will be, not even in this, his final season.

"I'm not like Mo," Jeter said Wednesday night. “Mo is different than me. I play every day, so I have to go out there and play. Mo got massages for five innings then went out to the bullpen in the seventh, so it’s completely different.”

He was laughing when he said this, but the intent was clear: The farewell tour is nice, but it will have to remain secondary to winning baseball games, and enough of them to make one more October possible.

That is why when someone asked him if he retrieved the ball he hit over the left-field fence Wednesday night, Jeter looked at him as if he were nuts.

"Why?" he asked, genuinely perplexed.

Last home run in Anaheim, he was told.

"Aah, I'm not going to catch Babe Ruth, anyway," he said.

But Babe is not the target. The rest of the American League is, and to do that, Derek Jeter's eyes, always steely, will have to remain dry.

Friendly crowd: Jeter wasn't the only one with a huge rooting section at the Big A on Wednesday night. Vidal Nuno, who grew up about two hours south of Anaheim in National City, California, had about 50 friends and family members at the game, certainly nowhere near the 40,000 or so who came to see Jeter but still large and noisy enough to attract Girardi's attention.

"I knew he'd probably have his mom and dad here," Girardi said. "But I had no idea how many people he had here until I went to the mound to take him out [in the seventh inning]."

Nuno said it was the first time his parents had seen him pitch since he was in high school, and they picked a good time to come out: Nuno held the Angels to one run on four hits and earned his first win of the season.

One good turn deserves another: I told you Wednesday that Jeter and Brian Roberts had a good-natured needling relationship about their inability to hit a home run -- until this series. When Roberts hit his first one Tuesday, beating Jeter by a day, Jeter was conveniently in the men's room and didn't get to see it. Well, guess where Roberts was Wednesday when Jeter hit his first home run?

"I was coming up the stairs, and he was standing there looking for me," Roberts said. "I just said, 'I was in the bathroom. Sorry.'"

Said Jeter: "That's the effect we have on each other."