HOUSTON -- Everyone is retiring, or threatening to flee, or facing a career-killing suspension, or physically falling apart. Rome is crumbling, and the fans of the New York Yankees desperately need someone to tell them it is not.
Derek Jeter is that someone. On the day Joe Girardi said he, too, might take off and leave this mess for someone else to fix, his 39-year-old captain said he expects to win a championship in 2014, just as he expected to win one as a rookie in 1996.
"Always. Bottom line," Jeter said at his locker on the final day of a season he'd described as a nightmare. "That's the goal. That will always be the message as long as I'm here."
Yes, the fans needed to hear this from Jeter, their last man standing. Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte were going, going, gone, and Robinson Cano and Girardi might be right behind them. Alex Rodriguez was heading straight into a bloody conference-room fight over his 211-game Biogenesis ban, and his employer, Hal Steinbrenner, was publicly praying at the altar of fiscal restraint.
So Jeter needed to stand and deliver Sunday, even if he could barely stand at all this season. The ankle fractures and the quad and calf injuries kept him off the field for all but 17 games, and yet Jeter told ESPNNewYork.com that nothing -- not even his 40th birthday next June -- will alter his expectations of a big comeback season.
"Why would you set expectations low?" Jeter said. "I don't understand that. I don't understand how people do that. I've never done it."
It was mentioned to the Yankees' captain that he hit .324 in 2003 -- his only other season dramatically impacted by injury -- after returning from his dislocated shoulder. It was also mentioned to Jeter that he was, you know, 10 years younger back then.
"I hit pretty good the last year I played, too," he countered. Yes, in 2012, Jeter batted .316 and led the league with 216 hits.
"So I don't see any reason why, I mean, it's not like my arms fell off and I can't pick up the bat," Jeter continued. "You know what I'm saying? I had an injury. I had an ankle injury, and that's healed. Now it's time to go.
"Now it's time to get strong, strengthen my legs, and be right where I was before."
Man, did Yankees fans ever need a declaration like this. They'd cried for Mariano in the Bronx on Thursday night, and they'd cheered for Andy in Houston on Saturday night, but in between the fond farewells, Yankees fans had absorbed nothing but grim forecasts of another post-Mantle Dark Ages to come.
People were saying the roster was too old and too banged up. People were saying that Cano was ready to sign with the highest bidder, and that Girardi might leave for his hometown Cubs, or for a cushy landing inside a TV booth, this before the manager disclosed Sunday he might simply want to spend more quality time with his wife and kids.
If Jeter didn't act earlier to temper the fan base's fears, hey, the man was busy saying goodbye to his longtime friends. You should know it took a lot out of the stoic shortstop; the strong, personal feelings hit him when he was looking the other way.
"It has been more [emotional] than I thought it would be," Jeter said. "It's not something we ever think about. Our whole focus has always been trying to win on a particular day. And when I say 'we,' I mean us three."
Mo, Andy and Jeter.
"We never really gave any thought to the future because the focus is always on the present," Jeter said. "So, yeah, going through these ceremonies, seeing Mo and Andy pitch for the last time, it's been pretty odd to watch."
Odd and taxing. Jeter revealed to ESPNNewYork.com that he had a recent dinner at a New York restaurant with Rivera and Pettitte and that his emotions got the best of him.
"We had a little dinner for Mo when we were at home before the last game," the captain said, "Just close family and friends. Andy was there, too, and that was probably where it hit me the most.
"A bunch of people spoke, so it was nice. It was nice that they did it for [Rivera], and I was glad I had a chance to go."
Jeter's message when he spoke at the dinner?
"It wasn't really a message," he said, "because I got so emotional, I didn't have a message."
Jeter was told that the last time he was known to have cried, he was an overwhelmed and homesick teenager in Tampa who thought the Yankees had wasted their first-round draft pick on him.
"No, no, no," he said. "This was an almost [crying] thing. But Mo and Andy both know what they mean to me; I told them both separately. … They're my brothers. I played with them for parts of 21, 22 seasons professionally, ever since I was 18 years old, and Jorge [Posada] is the same.
"I've always played with at least one of them. Jorge left, and last year Mo was hurt, but Andy was still there. It will be very, very odd to actually have to do it without them." But Jeter still believes he can do it without them. He's won five World Series titles with Rivera, Pettitte and Posada by his side, and now he'll pursue No. 6 with whatever cast Steinbrenner and Randy Levine and Brian Cashman assemble around him.
This should come as little surprise, as Jeter was never shy about targeting Yogi Berra's record sum of 10 championships. The shortstop isn't about to catch the catcher, but Jeter understands what matching Michael Jordan's number of rings (six), or Mickey Mantle's (seven), would mean to his legacy, especially without any Core Four support.
Will he be the full-time shortstop next season, or will the Yankees hire a replacement and make Jeter a DH/utility hybrid? Girardi put that ball in Cashman's court but said he expected his captain to play and "do everything in his power to get back to the form he was in in 2012."
Back at his locker, Jeter said that he's merely going one year at a time, and that he's been too busy focusing on Mo and Andy to focus on himself. But on the day the 2013 Yankees died, right along with the 0-4 football Giants, Jeter did take the time to remind New York that, even in these turbulent times, some things never change.
The last man standing expects to win it all next season, just in case his fan base was wondering.