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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

For Derek Jeter, ring always was only thing

Derek Jeter stands at first base after passing

Derek Jeter stands at first base after passing Willie Mays for 10th all-time on baseball's hit list with No. 3,284 in his career. (Sept. 14, 2012) Credit: David Pokress

TAMPA, Fla. - Now that we know the end is coming, with Derek Jeter's bombshell announcement Wednesday that this will be his final season, it's only natural to think back to the very beginning.

To a 22-year-old shortstop, the AL Rookie of the Year in 1996, and the words of someone who knew him best: Jeter's father, Charles. The Yankees had climbed back to glory, winning the World Series for the first time in 18 years, and Jeter was still in the embryonic stages of what would be a Hall of Fame career.

But of all the memories created during that magical season, Charles recalled what most impressed his son, who already understood the importance of what he had worked for, and to appreciate it.

"Derek doesn't really get excited about a lot of things,'' Charles told me back then. "But he couldn't stop talking about that parade.''

Maybe that's why Jeter kept chasing those parades, kept pushing for a return trip to the Canyon of Heroes. Maybe that helps explain why he made it back there four more times, why the feeling never got old for him. To the outside world, it looked routine during those dynasty years, as much a part of October as Halloween.

Not to Jeter. People will argue that he had plenty of help from stacked rosters bought by George Steinbrenner, but no one wanted a World Series ring more than Jeter -- and then the next one, and the one after that. Plenty of players say their goal is to win a championship above all else. But how many do you actually believe?

We believed Jeter. Standing at his locker, before or after games, Jeter doesn't say a heck of a lot. He talks, sure, but picks his spots when it comes to quotes that he knows will attract more than the usual attention. Jeter's focus rarely strays from the standings, from trying to figure out how to win tomorrow and what else he needs to do to help make that happen.

The cynical may hear Jeter's words as some sort of cliché. To them, all the team-first talk can sound tired, a recycled refrain offered to confound the media hordes who follow the team on a daily basis. But it's always felt real with Jeter, more because of what he does than says, and the Yankees -- a franchise built on its hellbent pursuit of world titles -- have needed him at their center.

A year from now, he won't be there. And honestly, the Yankees will never have another Jeter, just like there has never been another Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio or Mantle. The sport will always produce great players ticketed for Cooperstown. But how many more will win five World Series rings? As the Yankees' captain? Jeter is something we may not see again in our lifetimes, a one-of-a-kind phenomenon, and that's what makes Wednesday's's announcement so unsettling for those of us who have watched him from the very start.

Even as the Core Four crumbled around him, as long as Jeter remained, there was a pillar to cling to. But as Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte carefully orchestrated their farewells last season, it was easy to overlook that the Jeter we knew also was preparing his goodbye. Seeing him try to perform at his usual level with an ankle that was patched together by plates and screws was painful to watch. Jeter was as honest with us about his condition as he'd ever been regarding an injury -- and we know now that he also had stopped lying to himself about it.

"Last year was a tough one for me,'' Jeter said Wednesday in his Facebook letter. "As I suffered through a bunch of injuries, I realized that some of the things that always came easily to me and were always fun had started to become a struggle. The one thing I always said to myself was that when baseball started to feel more like a job, it would be time to move forward.''

Now Jeter is forcing the rest of us to move on as well. It won't be easy. Not for Jeter, not for the Yankees, not for Major League Baseball. We all get one more season, just like with Rivera, and then it's over.

"I want to soak in every moment of every day this year,'' Jeter wrote, "so I can remember it for the rest of my life.''

Knowing Jeter, in his mind, he's already planning on another parade.

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