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Wednesday, April 2, 2014
Updated: April 3, 12:31 PM ET
Now the hard part, Jeter: Saying bye

By Ian O'Connor
ESPNNewYork.com

HOUSTON -- Before a smaller crowd than you might find at a Texas high school football game under the Friday night lights, Derek Jeter did not pull a Mariano Rivera. He did not grab a microphone on the Minute Maid Park field like Rivera did last fall, when the closer apologized to the Houston fans for denying them the privilege of seeing him pitch for the final time.

Rivera wanted his emotional exit from the Yankee Stadium mound to stand as his long kiss goodbye, and rightfully so. "You guys deserved more," Mo said that Sunday afternoon in Houston, "but I'm being a little selfish."

And in his own way Wednesday night, before his $200 million-plus New York Yankees lost another game to the $44 million-plus Astros, Jeter was being a little selfish, too. The Houston fans stood and cheered for him in a ceremony, took in his signature flip-play and Mr. November highlights on the scoreboard and basically treated him as if the Astros had taken him with that No. 1 pick in 1992 after all.

But Jeter didn't address them. In fact, the shortstop couldn't have diagrammed that 2001 flip play on a grease board in the time it took him to trot out from the dugout, greet ex-teammates Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Mike Stanton, shake hands with a few pro golfers (major champions Mark O'Meara and Lucas Glover among them) and accept his new set of Titleists, a Stetson hat borrowed from a Wild West saloon and pinstriped cowboy boots carrying his No. 2.

"It was nice that they took the time to honor me," Jeter said.

Derek Jeter
Derek Jeter received a standing ovation in his first at-bat against Houston on Wednesday night.

And nicer that they didn't take too much time to honor him.

Jeter did surprise a few longtime Jeter watchers -- and maybe even himself -- by stepping out of the batter's box in the first inning, removing his helmet and waving it to all corners of the ballpark after the Astros emerged from their dugout and joined the crowd in a standing ovation. The gesture, Jeter said, "kind of caught me off guard," much in the way the Tampa Bay Rays' show of appreciation caught him off guard after he took David Price deep for hit No. 3,000.

"It's kind of odd," Jeter said, "second game of the season. ... It was much appreciated. I never even thought about that happening. I didn't know what was happening at first, so, no, I didn't plan anything."

It was a good scene, and the first victory for a Yankees team now tied with the miserable Mets at 0-2. Given that the 1998 Yanks started 1-4 and put George Steinbrenner's manager, Joe Torre, in harm's way before winning 114 games and a World Series title, it wasn't the right time to wonder if Jacoby Ellsbury and Alfonso Soriano will ever get another hit.

No, the first farewell tribute of many for Jeter was the bigger game within the game. At the end of 2013, Rivera admitted that his own victory lap left him more drained than he ever imagined it would. Would human nature compel Jeter, baseball's ultimate automaton, to let down his guard long enough in his final season for his game to be impacted in an adverse way?

"Mo did a lot of things that are impossible for a position player to do," Jeter said outside his clubhouse as he prepared to board a cart with Soriano for a ride out of the place.

"Mo was going around doing stuff before the games, where we have routines as position players. So it's entirely different."

Meaning it's entirely possible that Jeter will never give a road crowd much more than he gave Houston's, with the possible exception of the season-ending series at Fenway Park.

On his way out of Minute Maid, Jeter was asked if it was important for him to keep these pregame tributes short and sweet.

"Yes, it is," he said. "Yes, as long as we have enough time to get ready for the game, it's fine. I hit before I went out on the field tonight, and then all you've got to do is throw and run. So I had plenty of time to get ready."

Jeter was speaking right after CC Sabathia had handed him something to sign, and after an Astros staffer introduced him to his young daughter and asked the shortstop to pose for a picture with her (he obliged).

The demands on his time and attention will only intensify as the end nears, creating a monumental challenge for a soon-to-be-40-year-old man who has forever railed against the celebration of self over team.

"I know that Derek is crazy, crazy, crazy about his routine," said Pettitte, who suggested his old teammate would rather answer questions about his love life than engage in this lovefest series after series after series.

Yet in his mind, Jeter had no choice but to announce his retirement in February. He wanted to control the terms of his departure and to go out as a shortstop. Rolling the dice this year after an injury-ravaged 2013 was no way to do that.

So there he was in the second game and the first ceremony of the season, accepting strange gifts from a strange assortment of people chosen to hand them out (Mark O'Meara?).

"The guys were trying to get me to wear the boots and the hat," Jeter said. "I'll wear the boots and the hat while I golf, with the golf clubs. I can combine all of them. ... I don't have too many pairs of boots, so I'll wear them one day."

As it turns out, Astros owner Jim Crane, golf nut, offered Jeter a stay at the resort he owns and free lessons from Butch Harmon. "I need lessons from a lot of people when it comes to golf," Jeter said. "So any lesson someone wants to give me, I'd be more than happy to accept it."

No, this isn't going to be any replication of Mariano Rivera's tour of the big leagues. Before games last year, Rivera would meet with longtime fans and employees, cancer victims, wounded war veterans and Boston Marathon bombing victims to listen to their stories and to thank them for their service and support. These sessions would sometimes run longer than an hour and would be often followed by lengthy pregame ceremonies.

Rivera could then take two or three hours to recover before preparing himself to pitch the ninth. Of course, the shortstop has no such luxury.

"I did everything that I was supposed to do before I played," Jeter said Wednesday night. "[The ceremony] wasn't that long. So, no, it did not interfere with anything."

Only this isn't going to be easy for the captain, who lunched with George and Barbara Bush on Tuesday, hours before his jerseys went on sale in the Astros' team store. This is the same Jeter who insisted on calling his retirement news conference an availability session and who said he'd never want or expect a season-long celebration of his career.

"I don't know if he's asking for that," Brian Cashman said at that same availability session. "But it's certainly coming."

Now it's officially here. How Derek Jeter takes his bows and manages his time without offending an adoring public might be the toughest game he plays all year.