"Mr. Jeter, Sign my ball!"
Those calls from the stands at George M. Steinbrenner Field have been heard every spring in Tampa, Fla., for two decades, from an entire generation of baseball fans that know nothing else but Yankees baseball with Derek Jeter leading the charge. Or, to put it another way, you'd have to be at least 27 or 28 years old to have any recollection of life for the Bronx Bombers without No. 2 wearing pinstripes.
On a somewhat chilly and overcast day on the West Coast of Florida, it was the official beginning of the end. Weeks after Jeter made his retirement intentions known on Facebook, he took the field for the first time in 2014. It was the final spring opener for, perhaps, the best shortstop in the history of this great game.
The cameras caught him smiling as the Yanks warmed up prior to facing the Pirates -- that trademark smile that years ago caught the attention of young fans. Those same fans have grown up to have children of their own, all the while watching an all-time great.
Jeter is smiling because his ankle is finally healthy, and he's back on the field after a disastrous 2013 campaign. Smiling because his Yankees have a legitimate shot to win another World Series championship. Smiling because there will be no more inquires about how long his career can continue.
However, although Jeter's future is determined, the white-hot New York spotlight will remain on him all year. The spotlight doesn't take days off even if Jeter does. In the next seven months or so, hundreds of media members will test Jeter's patience (and smile) by asking and reasking similar questions over and over again. In every city. After every game. He'll field way more questions than he will ground balls.
Opinions on Jeter's Hall of Fame career from those who watch and cover the game are abundant. But perhaps greatness is best measured by speaking to those who had the talent to play and manage at the highest level.
Consider these quotes:
Rangers manager Ron Washington: "Winner, winner, winner, winner, winner. He makes everyone better. Always has. Very respectful of the game. Very respectful of all the people in the game. Very influential. Always willing to lend an ear. Willing to give advice. ... He's [won] with class, style, and he did it with a lot of turnover. The game of baseball is going to miss Derek a lot, not only the competition he brings, but just the fact of the class person that he is. It had to happen at some time, and I'm glad he was able to do it on his own terms."
Giants senior vice president and general manager Brian Sabean: "Playing in New York and having all that success, he became a household name. I'm sure that a lot of kids would wish that on their best days, they could play like Jeter at least for one day."
Giants manager Bruce Bochy: "It's players like Derek Jeter who make this game what it is. It's a beautiful game, and he's such an ambassador to the game. I'm sure he's inspired other players to play the game. He does things the right way. Baseball has been very fortunate to have a player like this for as long as we've had him. For him to go down as one of the greatest Yankees ever, that's quite an honor with the history of the Yankees. I tip my cap to his career, and it will be nice that he gets the sendoff that's well deserved."
Assuming Jeter stays healthy through the season, that regular-season sendoff will take place in Boston on Sept. 28. Even at Fenway Park, you're sure to hear a wicked large group of fans screaming for one last autograph. By then, Jeter's 0-for-2 performance in the spring opener versus Pittsburgh will be a distant memory, but his legacy will live on forever.