TAMPA, Fla. — Derek Jeter spoke for 25 minutes, 44 seconds and answered 26 questions about his decision to retire at the end of this season.
He said “it’s time,” ”the right time” and “the time is now.” Twice more he added “the time is right.”
Jeter will be leaving the major leagues the way he entered: accessible, yet opaque; approachable, but distant.
So why is Jeter retiring?
“He just said ‘it’s time,’ but he didn’t really say,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman concluded after Jeter reported to spring training Wednesday for his 20th and final major league season.
One week earlier, the Yankees captain surprised and saddened teammates with his announcement, revealed by posting a 15-paragraph, 644-word statement on his Facebook page, one relatively few people were aware he even had.
“You can’t do this forever. I’d like to, but you can’t do it forever,” he said to a crowded room filled with Yankees management and players in addition to media.
Jeter, who turns 40 in June, was limited to 17 games last season, hitting .190 with one homer and seven RBIs after breaking his left ankle in the 2012 AL championship series opener. While he returned last July, he wound up on the disabled list three more times because of leg ailments caused by a lack of strength after the ankle healed.
“It wasn’t fun because I wasn’t playing. I think it forced me to start thinking about, well, how long do I want to do this? And that’s how I came to my decision,” he said. “It just became a job last year.”
He sounded much like Joe DiMaggio, who left the Yankees in December 1951 saying, “when baseball is no longer fun, it’s no longer a game.”
Just two years ago, Jeter led the big leagues with 216 hits. And after an offseason of intensive workouts, Jeter is confident he will regain his productivity this year and be an everyday shortstop — only the fourth in big league history in the season they turned 40.
Wearing a navy Yankees pullover and shorts, and a New York cap, he spoke directly and dispassionately, much like during every interview since he first reached the major leagues in 1995. He kept his arms crossed in front of him for much of the time, resting them on a table. He flashed those famous white teeth and smiled, displaying not a trace of melancholy.
“Trying to get me to cry?” he said after one question. “I have feelings. I’m not emotionally stunted. There’s feelings there, but I think I’ve just been pretty good at trying to hide my emotions throughout the years. I try to have the same demeanor each and every day.”
He’s been clear that he doesn’t reveal his deepest thoughts publicly, not in the tabloid, talk-radio and Twitter-driven tumult of the Big Apple.
“I know I haven’t really been as open with some of you guys as you would have liked me to be over the last 20 years, but that’s by design,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I don’t have those feelings. It’s just that’s the way I felt as though I’d be able to make it this long in New York.”
He made the announcement on Facebook to circumvent “cut-and-paste” media, to get out his full message and to draw attention to his Turn 2 Foundation — a pun on middle infielders making double plays and on his uniform No. 2. He is a relic, the last of the single digits to wear a Yankees uniform, the last to be introduced before each at-bat by Bob Sheppard, the Yankee Stadium public address announcer from 1951-07. While Sheppard died in 2010, a recording is played when Jeter walks to home plate.
In the second half of his life, Jeter could have a future in business or even baseball management — he’s earned enough to become an owner. He’s been among New York’s most eligible bachelors.
“There’s other things I want to do. I want to have a family. That’s important me,” he said, without a hint of what “other things” might entail.
Jorge Posada retired after the 2011 season, and Mariano Rivera spoke in the same pavilion behind the third base stands last March and said 2013 would be his final year. Andy Pettitte departed last fall, too, leaving Jeter as the last of the Core Four who helped New York win five World Series titles.
Owners Hal and Hank Steinbrenner and Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal watched Jeter from the front row, manager Joe Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman in the second. Teammates, who said his decision shocked and saddened them, were in the rows after that.
Cashman called Jeter “a Secretariat, so to speak, that you can run in as many races as you can and win a lot.”
“Right now it’s kind of surreal and it’s strange to think of the Yankees without him in the lineup. But we’re not there yet,” said Hal Steinbrenner, the team’s managing general partner.
When he spoke with Jeter hours before the Feb. 12 announcement, he didn’t lobby for a reconsideration.
“I respect when an individual makes a decision like this because I know how much time and thought they put into it. It’s not my place to second guess,” he said.
Jeter wouldn’t put an exact date on when he made up his mind.
“I wanted to make this announcement months ago. I really did. But people — I don’t want to say forced, but they advised me to take my time before I said it,” he said.
He kept getting asked about his future.
“Even walking down the street,” he said, “people ask because I missed last year: Are you playing this year? How much longer are you going to play? How many years to do you have? You get tired of hearing it.”
He enters his 20th big league season with a .312 average, 256 homers and 1,261 RBIs. Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson already has Tweeted “for those booking early” the 2020 induction ceremony is scheduled for July 26. For Jeter, the titles mean more than the statistics. And most of all, he treasures getting to wear the pinstripes.
“The thing that means the most to me is being remembered as a Yankee, because that’s what I’ve always wanted to be, was to be a Yankee,” Jeter said. “I have to thank the Steinbrenner family that’s here today and our late owner, the Boss, because they gave me an opportunity to pretty much live my dream my entire life. And the great thing with being a Yankee is you’re always a Yankee. So in that sense it never ends.”