New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter stretches during practice at the Yankees' minor league facility Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, in Tampa, Fla. Jeter says he will retire after this season. Jeter posted a long letter on his Facebook account Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, saying the 2014 will be his last year playing professional baseball.(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Updated: February 12, 2014 10:14PM
TAMPA, Fla. — Derek Jeter could have walked away whenever he wanted from the New York Yankees.
It was his choice.
If he wanted to look like a stumbling Willie Mays at the end of his career, a hobbled Mickey Mantle, or an old Satchel Paige, Derek Jeter earned the privilege to inform the Yankees when he was retiring.
The Yankees sensed it was coming at some point this season, but not Wednesday, not a week before the Yankees’ first spring training workout.
“We’ve got to respect his decision,’’ Yankee president Randy Levine told USA TODAY Sports.
If the Yankees had their druthers, Jeter would have announced his decision in front of the world in New York.
Certainly, he could have saved the announcement at his annual spring training press conference in Tampa, Fla.
Instead, he revealed his intentions in typical Jeter style.
He telephoned Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner in the morning, and announced it on his Facebook page Wednesday in the middle of the afternoon after his teammates already had gone home from their early spring-training workout.
“Really it was months ago when I realized that this season would likely be my last,” Jeter wrote. “As I came to this conclusion and shared it with my friends and family, they all told me to hold off saying anything until I was absolutely 100% sure.
“And the thing is, I could not be more sure.’’
He became absolutely certain before he even stepped onto the spring training field.
“He’s been such a great Yankee, a great person, a great icon,’’ Levine told USA TODAY Sports. “We’ve been so fortunate to watch him play and be a champion. We didn’t know what was going to happen.
“But nobody knows his body better than him, and at the end of the day, he wants to go out on top.
“He wants to go out like Michael Jordan.’’
Certainly, Jeter could have waited to see how his body responded. He’s coming off the worst year of his career. He played in just 17 games after a fractured ankle and quadriceps injury, trying to recover from his broken ankle in the 2012 playoffs.
It doesn’t really matter.
The end is here.
Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and now Jeter.
Yes, it’s like Paul McCartney just sang his last song.
The Fab Four is over.
The Yankees’ final regular-season game, ironically will be Sept. 28 at Fenway Park.
Oh, yes, and Jeter and Alex Rodriguez have played their last game together, too.
Jeter will be honored throughout baseball just like Rivera last year, only the pomp and circumstances will be greater. There will be sellout crowds on the road for one last glimpse. There will be tributes. Lavish gifts. Trips. And everything possible to make sure Jeter is forever remembered.
He won’t be remembered as the greatest shortstop to play the game.
But he will be remembered as perhaps the classiest superstar to play this game.
“In the 21-plus years in which I have served as Commissioner, Major League Baseball has had no finer ambassador than Derek Jeter,’’ Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. “ Since his championship rookie season of 1996, Derek has represented all the best of the National Pastime on and off the field. He is one of the most accomplished and memorable players of his_or any – era.
“Derek is the kind of person that generations have emulated proudly, and he remains an exemplary face of our sport.’’
We’re talking about one of the game’s greatest players who helped revive baseball’s most iconic franchise, winning five World Series championships, and doing it with class.
Never once did Jeter embarrass the game, the Yankees or himself.
Never was he involved in a scandal, not even as one of New York’s most eligible bachelors, living in a fishbowl with paparazzi waiting for a slip-up.
And never, ever, was he ever implicated or even whispered to be involved in the use of performance-enhancing drugs, a temptation that brought down several of his high-profile teammates including Roger Clemens, Pettitte, Jason Giambi, and of, course, A-Rod.
He always said the right thing.
He always did the right thing.
He always acted the right way.
“For nearly 20 years, there has been no greater ambassador to the game of baseball than Derek Jeter,’’ Major League Players executive director Tony Clark said. “ Day in and day out, on the world’s greatest stage, and through the peaks and valleys of a 162-game schedule, Derek consistently demonstrates awe-inspiring levels of passion, determination and excellence.
“A champion on and off the field, Derek’s impact cannot be understated.’’
Jeter, a no-brainer, first-ballot, perhaps even close to a unanimous, Hall of Famer, will be forever revered in New York just like Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mantle and Rivera.
The Yankees knew there would be a day he’d eventually have to retire.
They figured there would even be a conversation this summer.
Sorry, but Jeter figured there was no reason for any talk.
He wanted to go out on his terms.
“At the end of the day,’’ Levine says, “he leaves as a champion.’’
Was there ever any doubt?