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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Dobie: Derek Jeter finally lets down his guard

New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter walks on

New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter walks on the field at the conclusion of the game after his game winning hit in the ninth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankees Stadium. Credit: EPA / JASON SZENES

We all knew Thursday night in the Bronx would be special. How could Derek Jeter's last game at Yankee Stadium be anything but? And, indeed, the man known as Captain Clutch did not disappoint.

But on an evening made for memories and meditations, nothing was more striking than the words and emotions that poured from a man who so famously kept private his most personal thoughts and feelings.

The mask was cast off, the guard was dropped, and the most stoic of sports icons melted. It was a revelation, and it humanized Jeter in a way we haven't seen before.

The unraveling started on his drive to the ballpark when, he admitted, he nearly broke down. It happened again before the game when his teammates presented him with gifts. By the time he took the field, he said, "I was all messed up . . . To be honest with you, I don't know how I played this game."

He ticked off all the un-Jeter-like moments -- forgetting his elbow guard for his first at-bat, throwing balls away, giving signs to second baseman Stephen Drew when there were no runners on base. He acknowledged hoping the ball was not hit to him, afraid he would be unable to make a play. At one point, he ducked out of the dugout and into a bathroom to cry.

The game, he confessed, was the culmination of a long season of testimonials and goodbyes that had grown increasingly difficult to deal with as his farewell tour wound down.

"You almost feel as if you're watching your own funeral," he said. "People are telling you great things, and they're showing highlights and reflecting. I understand that my baseball career is over with. But people are giving you well wishes like you're about to die. I've appreciated it all, but internally it feels like part of you is dying."

We all confront the end of our careers at some point. Athletes do it earlier than most. And they do it on a most public stage. For many, it's a wave and a smile and they're gone.

Jeter gave us more. He gave us a glimpse into how much it all mattered to him, how important it was that he and the Yankees be the best, how much he loved the fans who loved him back -- and how much he's going to miss it all.

"I've done a pretty good job controlling my emotions," he said. "I try to hide them . . . Today, I wasn't able to do it."

By the time the bottom of the ninth inning rolled around, with the game against the Baltimore Orioles tied at 5-5, Jeter said his first thought as he walked to the plate with pinch runner Antoan Richardson on second base was, "Don't cry."

Then the Jeter we've known for years rallied, and he told himself to look for a good pitch to hit. Which, of course, he did -- a single to rightfield that won the game and resurrected the famous victory grin we've seen so many times. It might have been the only normal moment of the night.

Soon enough he was making his final tour of the Stadium. It was a simple stroll around the infield on his way to sacred ground, the place he'd patrolled for 20 years. He held a towel to his face as he tried to blink away the tears. When he reached the edge of the infield grass, he crouched, head down. It looked like he was praying.

He said later he was saying thank you. But it's us who should thank Jeter. For being everything he was during an amazing run of excellence, and then, on the last night, for letting us inside.

We're so glad you did.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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