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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Derek Jeter did it his way, and it wasn't as easy as he made it look

Derek Jeter Gatorade ad

The latest ad to capitalize on Derek Jeter's impending retirement? This spot from Gatorade, with a little help from Frank Sinatra.

It's easy to forget now, because we've been around the Yankees for the past two decades and seen Derek Jeter in much happier times.

But long before the parting gifts and the five World Series rings, Jeter's championship pedigree was born from disappointment. In his first October, as a non-roster call-up for the 1995 Division Series against Seattle, Jeter learned firsthand the heartbreak of losing.

In that raucous Kingdome, under the haze of fireworks smoke, after seeing his team take the lead in the top of the 11th inning of the deciding Game 5, Jeter watched the Mariners celebrate a walk-off 6-5 victory.

Many of the other Yankees had left the dugout. "Everybody was stunned, and he just stayed there, sitting on the edge of the bench, staring at the field,'' said Willie Randolph, a Yankees coach at the time. "He got a chance to see what it feels like and what it looks like. That stays with you.''

It's stuck with Jeter ever since.

Those formative years turned out to be the most successful of his 20-year career as the Yankees' modern dynasty was built, but that competitive fire was never far below the surface.

Just because Jeter made winning look easy didn't mean it was. He kept telling us that. But he recalled the other day seeing Don Mattingly -- the man he would replace as captain -- in tears after that '95 loss, knowing that he would call it quits on the plane ride home, forfeiting a chance to ever play in a World Series.

"When you remember those feelings, you don't want to have them again,'' Jeter said with two weeks left in his final season. "That's what drives you. That's what continues to make you work.''

As crazy as it sounds, what Jeter has managed to do this year may have been one of his finer accomplishments. Sure, the motivation of another ring is always there with the Yankees. But you know that Jeter wanted to go out on his own terms, and the sting of his injury-riddled 2013 season, in which he played only 17 games and batted .190, probably kept him awake all last winter.

Count us among the skeptics who didn't expect Jeter to make it through this season. Not with a surgically repaired left ankle held together by plates and screws. Not playing shortstop. Not at age 40. The odds of Jeter surviving such a physically demanding position -- along with whatever awaited on the basepaths -- were overwhelmingly against him.

By the time Jeter reached September, still the Yankees' everyday shortstop and No. 2 hitter, we're convinced he delighted in proving us wrong. Isn't that what he always did?

When the early scouting reports thought he was too big to be a shortstop -- former Rangers manager Ron Washington assumed he'd be moved to third in the minors -- it only strengthened Jeter's resolve that he never would play anywhere else.

"I take a lot of pride in doing my job,'' Jeter said. "I want to come out here and I want the organization to count on me being out there -- good or bad. I want them to count on me playing.''

Jeter has done that in his farewell season. We can debate the merits from a pure baseball perspective and discuss how an older, diminished Jeter impacted the Yankees as they missed the playoffs for a second consecutive season. But in looking at Jeter's career, there's no point in dwelling on the present.

Some may disagree, and Jeter himself would say that getting to October outweighs all else. But there's also value in appreciating what you have and recognizing the limited amount of time you have left with it.

The kayaks and surfboards and cowboy boots get to be a little much after a while, but the hokey pregame ceremonies are a minuscule part of the big picture.

The lasting impression we'll take away from this final season is the opportunity to watch Jeter take the field every day. To hear Bob Sheppard say "No. 2 . . . '' one more time. To think there's maybe one jump-throw left, one more inside-out single to rightfield.

A decade ago -- heck, as recently as 2012 -- we took those things for granted. They seemed routine, as much a part of the Bronx landscape as Monument Park or the George Steinbrenner mural adorning the back wall of the rightfield bleachers. It's not that they went unnoticed. They just blended in as part of the Yankees' fabric.

We get the sense, however, that nobody appreciated all of this more than Jeter. Every last inning.

It probably seems like yesterday that a wide-eyed Jeter surveyed that hectic scene at the now-demolished Kingdome, imagining what the future might have in store for a 21-year-old shortstop waiting for his moment.

Now we know. It exceeded everyone's wildest dreams. And in the waning days of this imperfect season, that's what we'll remember.

New York Sports