NEW YORK -- Derek Jeter knows full well a great swath of his legend is built upon the idea that he's superhuman when it comes to shrugging off the feelings or pressure that rock other players. So it was interesting that Jeter took great pains to make something clear before he took the field Monday for his last Opening Day at Yankee Stadium.
He was asked twice about the assumption that the fanfare around his season-long goodbye tour would be a pain, not a joy, for him. And it seemed uncharacteristically important for Jeter to correct public opinion.
"The perception is wrong -- I will enjoy it," Jeter said. "Every city I go to, every game I play, I will enjoy it. So what they think, how they 'think' I feel, they're wrong on that one. But at the same time, I get the fact that I have to play a game, I have to play a season. I think 'not enjoying it' is a wrong way to put it. Balancing it, I think, is a better way."
It was Jeter's roundabout way of telling people not to underestimate how much he loves baseball or how badly he's going to actually miss playing, even if he hasn't yet wiped away a tear. His lack of nostalgia so far shouldn't be confused with emotional numbness.
He's smart enough to know that every day marks more steps in his long goodbye.
Monday, it was finally playing at home after the Yanks spent the first week of their new season on the road. It was the last first day of hearing the Bleacher Creatures call out his name -- just a little louder than usual -- during roll call. It was having photographers and TV cameramen document his every move and fans ask him to sign their ticket stubs.
It was seeing Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera walk out in street clothes for the ceremonial first pitch to honor him, struck by the sight of him being the last of them still in uniform -- another reminder of the passage of time. And it was the sight of Jeter at the pregame news conference microphone, patiently listening to someone remind him how Joe Torre, his longest big league manager, told him not to let success go to his head after he had a terrific season and won his first World Series in their first season together.
Smirking a little now, Jeter cracked, "Well, the part of the story you're missing is that I told him the same thing: 'We won a championship, you had a great year managing. Don't screw it up after this.'"
The duo has gotten a lot of mileage over the years joking about Jeter's cooler-than-cool remarks to Torre as the manager was sweating the tightest moments of the biggest games.
But Orioles manager Buck Showalter, the Yanks' manager the first year Jeter arrived in the big leagues, put a lot into perspective before Jeter went 1-for-4 in the Yankees' 4-2 win over Baltimore. Like current Yankees manager Joe Girardi (who said, no, he didn't look at Jeter the rookie way back when and just know he'd get 3,000 hits), Showalter scoffed prior to Monday's game about "these scouts who say, 'I knew exactly what he [Jeter] was going to be.'"
But as for how Jeter did turn out, Showalter deadpanned, "We're excited to see him retire. Same as Mo." Was he happy to be here for such a memorable occasion? Another Showalter wisecrack: "I'd rather him not be playing today. I mean, seriously. It's like your grandmother making you go out and get switches to whip your own butt with."
And everyone laughed.
But Showalter's overarching point was an important one: To take for granted that Jeter was always destined to become great ignores the rest.
It wasn't dumb luck that made Jeter great. Nor was it some total absence of what Jeter called "nerves" or "butterflies" in the "wow moments" of his career. Rather, Jeter emphasized Monday, it was that he felt all of that, but "I hide it well."
Jeter has always appreciated being the shortstop for the franchise he had dreamed of playing for as a kid. And he has always been determined to work and do whatever it took to keep the job, which was something else that Jeter felt important to emphasize Monday even though, he said, "I get the fact I had success my first year."
"You know, I came up in a culture where you were never promised a job," Jeter reminded everybody. "We had to perform in order to keep our job. That's the mindset that we had going into every season. ... If you didn't do your job, The Boss would get rid of you. So every spring training, every offseason, we trained and prepared.
"The way I looked at it, it was an opportunity to win a job. So I did that every year."
There are folks who wonder if a star as big as Jeter can really be as grounded as all that sounds. Him, have to win a job? Not invoking his superstar privilege Monday when confronted with repeated questions about initially not running hard out of the box in the fifth inning when a ball he hammered down the left-field line turned out to be a double off the wall, not the home run he thought it was? Rather than preen like a sacred cow, Jeter instead acknowledged he screwed up with a series of droll jokes -- each of them funnier than the last.
The best one? Responding to an unrelated question about whether it's going to be awkward to see fans applaud him just for grounding into a double play. Jeter circled back to the ribbing for having to leg out the double and dryly cracked, "Maybe they were cheering for me hustling."
But Jeter has said self-deprecating things like that forever. And it's hard to fake being something you're not for 20 years.
Like Lou Gehrig, who famously said, "I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth," and Joe DiMaggio, who once said he hustled every day because "there is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first or last time, and I owe him my best," Jeter has feelings, all right. And high personal standards.
Like those other Yankees icons, he has loved this ride. He will dearly miss this. He gets how special it's been.
"Everybody's human," he said. "It's just ..."
Yeah, we know.
"I've got a job to do," he repeated.
So even if this is his long goodbye, the takeaway Monday was this: Jeter is just determined not to let it become maudlin.