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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Derek Jeter saves his best theater for last

Yankees' Derek Jeter gets a big hug from

Yankees' Derek Jeter gets a big hug from CC Sabathia and the team after hitting a ninth-inning, game-winning base hit against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

He's Derek Jeter. What did you expect?

We had been so overwhelmed by the farewell tour, so blunted by the relentless onslaught of everything Jeter during this season, we weren't exactly sure what Thursday night would be like at Yankee Stadium.

Did Jeter still have one more storybook moment in him?

Stupid question.

Ninth inning, score tied at 5, the speedy pinch runner Antoan Richardson at second base. As soon as the pitch left the right hand of Orioles reliever Evan Meek, you had to know where it was going.

Jeter surely did. With his signature inside-out swing, Jeter slapped a line-drive single into rightfield. As he circled first base, and saw Richardson slide home safely, Jeter thrust his arms skyward as the Yankees flooded the field.

And the stadium erupted.

You wanted emotion? You wanted special? Jeter gave it to us Thursday night. Just like he always did. Then pretended like he never saw it coming. Yeah, right.

"No, no, no," Jeter said. "I wouldn't have believed it myself. I was happy with the broken bat and run scored in the seventh inning. I was happy with that being the ending.

"But I'll take this one."

Before the game, Girardi spoke like he had a sixth sense about the evening ahead. The manager talked about the night being an event that Jeter would "be able to carry with him the rest of his life." But not just for the Yankees' captain.

"And I think it's something that all of us will remember," Girardi added.

Girardi's a pretty smart guy. A year ago, he was able to create magic by sending out Jeter and Andy Pettitte to retrieve Mariano Rivera from the mound. So simple, yet an instant classic. We wondered if the Bronx could possibly come close to matching that genuine emotion for Jeter's goodbye.

We got our answer at precisely 7:06 p.m., when Jeter led the Yankees onto the field to thunderous applause. The stadium was bursting -- a larger, more raucous crowd not seen since the 2009 World Series -- and Jeter looked a bit shaken by the sheer force of it all.

Jeter had been fighting back tears all day, from the drive to the stadium to a pregame meeting with teammates, who presented him with a painting and wristwatch. After that, the simple act of taking the field was almost too much, never mind actually doing baseball things.

"I don't know how I played," Jeter said. "A couple of times, I almost lost it. I was like, please don't hit it to me. I really thought I was going to break down."

That's a pretty incredible confession right there. Derek Jeter, 14-time All-Star, and a World Series MVP with five rings, afraid to field his position like some nervous Little Leaguer. But the emotional tide had to come in at some point. This was the end. After 20 years, it was over. He would soon be leaving his Bronx home for good.

When Jeter arrived Thursday, his only concern seemed to be a rainout. Despite steady showers, the clouds soon parted. There were even patches of blue sky by the time Hiroki Kuroda delivered his first pitch. There would be no delay. And it didn't take Jeter very long to put his stamp on the historic evening.

In the first inning, after Brett Gardner's leadoff single, Jeter turned on a 96-mph fastball from Kevin Gausman and came within a foot of planting it in the Orioles bullpen.

The RBI double went an estimated 398 feet, one of his longest drives of the season.

But that turned out to be only a footnote. David Robertson's blown save wound up setting the stage for even bigger theatrics from Jeter, who turned back the clock with that winning single.

And not just for himself. The 48,613 fans, too.

They filled the stadium to bid a fond farewell to Jeter, but also to be reminded of the better days. The five World Series rings, the parades down the Canyon of Heroes. Always with the eternally youthful Jeter leading the way.

"I wouldn't trade places with anyone that has ever played this game," Jeter said. "Because this is exactly what I dreamt of doing. Everything I've been able to do is more than I've ever dreamt."

But we're older now. The Yankees aren't as good. The Jeter we once knew doesn't seem to fit in this world. It's time for both of us to say goodbye. Man, was that a great way to do it.

New York Sports