NEW YORK (AP) — One by one, Derek Jeter watched them walk away.
His baseball brothers in pinstripes, the gang that grew up champions.
Bernie Williams was the first to go. Then, best buddy Jorge Posada. Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte said goodbye together just a few months ago.
And now, the last link to the latest run of New York Yankees dominance is ready to retire.
When the captain revealed Wednesday that 2014 will be his final season, it signaled the end of an era not only for the game’s most successful franchise, but all of Major League Baseball.
Jeter and pals from Jimmy Key to Alex Rodriguez produced a generation of sustained success, nearly two decades worth of winning by one special group of players.
We may never see the likes of it again — in any sport.
“It has been an incredible honor having a front row seat for one of the great players of all time,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said in a statement. “Derek has been a winner every step of the way.”
Jeter has led the Yankees to five World Series titles and seven American League pennants in 19 seasons. They won four championships in five years from 1996-2000, the last three in a row to become baseball’s most recent dynasty.
Those are surely his favorite numbers — and surely his favorite memories, with Bernie and Mo and Andy and “Sado.”
They were just kids then, really. Just kids beginning to build a legacy that included 17 playoff appearances in 18 years.
“Now it is time for the next chapter,” Jeter wrote in announcing his decision with a long letter on his Facebook page.
Joe Girardi was the catcher on that 1996 team, the one that ended an 18-year title drought in the Bronx. Now, he manages the Yankees. And still, the 39-year-old Jeter is prepping to play shortstop after injuries wrecked his 2013 season.
“He is unquestionably one of the greatest Yankees ever,” said Hal Steinbrenner, the club’s managing general partner. “He has meant so much to fans, the organization, my father and our family. I’m glad we have this year to celebrate everything he has meant to us and all the great things he still stands to accomplish.”
Of course, Jeter has racked up more than his share of individual achievements.
He ranks ninth on the career list with 3,316 hits, most in Yankees history. He owns a .312 lifetime batting average to go with 1,876 runs and 13 All-Star selections.
And then there are all those unforgettable moments he authored: The postseason homer aided by youngster Jeffrey Maier. The World Series shot that made him Mr. November. The home run for his 3,000th hit. The dive into the stands, the backhand flip in the playoffs, the eloquent speech to close old Yankee Stadium.
Few players have ever embraced the spotlight like Jeter. Few players have risen to the occasion so often.
He made it look so easy sometimes, especially under pressure.
“It was an honor and privilege to have Derek next to me for all those years. He made me a better player and a better person,” Posada said in a statement. “I’m so proud of our friendship and I love him like a brother. Derek was a true champion and the greatest teammate I ever had.”
But it’s all that winning — with grace and dignity — that puts Jeter in the pantheon of Yankees greats. He’s the 21st-century piece of a remarkable thread that stretches back, nearly uninterrupted, to Don Mattingly, Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth.
There is only one No. 2, and he’ll surely be the last player ever to wear it for the Yankees. And one day soon, Jeter will join those exalted players in Cooperstown and Monument Park.
“He’s right there. He’s got to be one of those,” said Mattingly, now manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson, meanwhile, tweeted out the date of the 2020 induction ceremonies — the first year Jeter could be enshrined — “for those booking early.”
Jeter broke into the big leagues in 1995, the final season of Mattingly’s stellar career with the Yankees.
“I saw him when he first showed for spring training. I always think about spring training when I think about him, just because he was this 17-year-old kid right out of high school who looked out of place. He was skinny, but he was tough. He’s been winning since the day he got there,” Mattingly said.
And now, Jeter will take his farewell tour around the majors, just as Rivera did last year.
“I’m so happy that Derek will get to go out on his terms — and his way,” Williams said. “He was as special a teammate as any player could ever have. I’m blessed to have played with him. Yankees fans and baseball fans all over the world will have a lot to celebrate this season.”
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