TAMPA, Fla. - The start of this season marks the beginning of the end for Derek Jeter, whose retirement always felt like something too far away to even consider, never mind actually happen.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, Jeter stunned us all with the announcement on Facebook, when he flipped over the hourglass and let everyone know that greatness has an expiration date.
"You can't do this forever," Jeter said.
What a way to kick off spring training. After the Yankees did the classic Steinbrenner rebuild by spending nearly $500 million to renovate their roster, here was Jeter -- the last remaining piece of the championship core -- bracing the team for his departure.
Talk about conflicting emotions. This season was supposed to be a comeback tour for the Yankees, a chance to rebound from the disappointment of missing the playoffs for only the second time in 19 years. Instead, it will be remembered as Jeter's long goodbye, the finish to a remarkable career that began as the Yankees were laying the foundation for their next dynasty.
It probably was no coincidence. Jeter was a wide-eyed 21-year-old watching from the dugout bench as the Mariners celebrated their wild-card series win over the Yankees at the Kingdome in 1995. The next October, Jeter helped lead them to the first of five World Series rings during his tenure, and seven trips to the Fall Classic overall.
Along the way, Jeter was named the 11th captain of the Yankees in 2003, and he'll have a plaque in Monument Park not long after his retirement. Jeter may be bowing out at the end of this season, but he's forever raised the bar for how a champion performs and behaves in New York.
"I've always been a big fan for what he has done on the baseball field," Mets captain David Wright said. "I became an even bigger fan after getting to know Derek and learning there is more to this game than what goes on between the lines."
Jeter's retirement comes on the heels of Mariano Rivera's farewell tour from last season and represents a changing of the guard for the Yankees, who have reloaded with expensive stars from outside the organization. While their title teams were built with the homegrown core of Jeter, Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte, it's now the crosstown Mets who are attempting to rebuild from the ranks of their farm system.
The Yankees' model is a smart one to follow, but Jeter -- as the last core player standing -- is virtually impossible to duplicate. What are the odds that a kid can be drafted sixth overall out of Kalamazoo, Mich., become the Yankees' starting shortstop four years later and go on to such a successful and spotless career spanning two decades in the Bronx? You'd probably have better luck running for president.
"He's an unbelievable guy,'' said Jose Reyes, who has idolized Jeter from early in his baseball career. "I was glad to share the same field with him when I played in New York. Everybody's going to miss him for sure.''
Of course, Jeter is not gone yet. Presumably, if he stays healthy, there's another six months left in his Hall of Fame career. And should the Yankees make good on their $200-million investment for the 2014 season, it might get Jeter into October for one more World Series push. That's the fairy- tale ending, anyway.
"I want to enjoy every day throughout the course of this year,'' Jeter said, "which has been difficult for me to do because you always focus on what you can do next -- getting to the next goal, the next goal. And I never really enjoyed the ride.''
We'll soon see what kind of ride this season turns out to be for Jeter. Teams already are thinking about the proper sendoff at their stadiums, just as they did last season for the legendary Rivera. For many of those teams, it usually was reversed, with Jeter the one moving on and leaving them in his wake.
"All I know is Derek Jeter has been the main cog in sending my butt home a lot of times in the playoffs,'' Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Let's just call him Early Exit Man because he did that to us quite a bit.''
Now it's Jeter headed for the door, and he says he's ready to wave goodbye. As for the rest of us, we're going to need these last few months.