NEW YORK -- He had already been given those funny cowboy boots as a gift in Houston, and had stood on the field at Minute Maid Park for a pregame feting, and so Derek Jeter and the Yankees were reminded well before they came home for their first 2014 game at the monolith at 161st Street that this is going to be a season full of days with much ado about something.
On Monday, that something was Jeter's last Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, and the excitement (as such) began not long after the clubhouse doors swung open at 9:35 a.m. Manager Joe Girardi was asked what he was expecting when Jeter came onto the field with Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera for the ceremonial first pitches. "A loud standing ovation," Girardi said, and added, "I think it will be a love-fest."
Predictions were one of the themes of this pre-game, and Jeter was asked whether an all-business ballplayer like him would be comfortable with all the festivities in store for him this season. "I will enjoy it," he declared, and tugged on the bill of his cap.
"He is always the same guy, I've already seen that," said Matt Thornton, a veteran relief pitcher in his first season with the Yankees. "Whatever is going on with the celebrations, he is always the same around us and the same on the field. And the way he seemed when I was playing against him -- hardworking, respects the game. Nothing changes."
Girardi was right about the standing ovation for the Yankees' Core Four, and Jeter got another standing O when he came to bat in the bottom of the first inning: Number 2, hitting second, a familiar sight. Jeter dug in, his back foot on the back line of the batters' box as usual, and he wagged his black bat. And then on the fifth pitch from righthander Ubaldo Jimenez -- the Yankees were playing the Orioles, by the way -- Jeter swung and missed for strike three.
Jeter had 'em up and applauding all day at the Stadium -- before he grounded into a double play in the third and struck out in the sixth, yes, but more pointedly after he smashed a ball off the leftfield wall in the fifth, slid headfirst into second and then came around to score the run that made it 3-1 Yankees. Jeter did not need to slide into home on that play, but he did anyway, and the crowd loved it: Dirt on the captain's uniform where it belonged. The love-fest was in full bloom, and the Yankees went on to close out a 4-2 win.
There is a lot of baseball to play this season -- 96 percent of the season, to be almost exact. It is far too early to know whether Jeter, now batting .250, is closer to the player who led the majors in hits at age 38 in 2012, or is still diminished after ankle and leg injuries ruined his season in 2013. The uncertainty explains why people even bothered to note that Jeter hit .137 over 51 at-bats in spring training.
"We think he is moving in the right direction," Girardi said before Monday's game, referring to Jeter's work at the plate this early season. In batting practice, Jeter made a point of rapping hard line drives into shallow rightfield, an area which functions as a kind of Jetersburg for him when things are going well. "But I don't think his statistics this year will have a big impact on how people show their appreciation [for him]," Girardi added. "People are going to show him appreciation no matter what happens."
The manager is right. Jeter's 2014 season will be about his 2014 season, but it will also be about recognizing a shortstop who has 3,321 hits (and counting) in a Yankees uniform and who has rings for each finger on his right hand. There are two ways to look at Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, and both ways are true. On the one hand, this was the beginning of the end for Derek Jeter -- only 80 regular season home games left. On the other hand, this was the start of something big.