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Oh, captain, their captain

  Derek Jeter salutes the crowd after he became the New York Yankees all-time hits leader in 2009.

Derek Jeter salutes the crowd after he became the New York Yankees all-time hits leader in 2009.

How do you fall out of love?

Does it happen all at once? Or subtly over time until one day you realize that your heart no longer skips a beat when you look at the box score?

I had loved the New York Yankees and, by extension, all of baseball from the time I was about 6 years old. That’s when I first saw the old, old Yankee Stadium, all blue and white. To me, it looked like a wedding cake. The first time I walked inside and saw the field fanning out to embrace infinity, I had only one thought: “I belong here.”

Over the years, I had many memorable moments there – particularly watching the magical teams of the late 1970s – and I would go on to write about the Yanks during their magnificent run at the end of the 20th century.

But also over those years, I found myself so emotionally invested in the Bombers that I couldn’t take their defeats. Then my Aunt Mary, my beloved Tiny, who would’ve been 92 on Oct. 1, became fatally ill, and even winning became painful. Indeed when the team won the World Series in 2009, the gulf between its euphoria and my despair seemed unbreachable.

After that, Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick happened to me, and I made the journey that America has: Its national pastime has given way to its national religion, a subject I explore in “In This Place You Hold Me,” the second novel in my series, “The Games Men Play.”

  Derek Jeter with President George W. Brush before the third game of the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium.  Jeter and the Yanks helped raise New Yorkers’ spirits in the days after 9/11.

Derek Jeter with President George W. Brush before the third game of the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium.  Jeter and the Yanks helped raise New Yorkers’ spirits in the days after 9/11.

But they say you never forget your first love and so it was with a certain wistfulness that I listened to Derek Jeter’s Yankee Stadium farewell Sept. 25. (His last game on Sept. 28 was fittingly against the archrival Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park.) 

I must confess that Jeter was never my favorite Yankee. I thought he was goofy-looking at first and later on, remote. But Jeter more than any other Yankee came to define the contemporary team, and he did it by being clutch and dignified.

In this, he was the opposite of the man who was once his close friend but became his frenemy by making some injudicious remarks about him in the press – fellow shortstop Alex Rodriguez. (Someone else might’ve laughed off the comments. Not the comme il faut Jeter. He never forgot that Rodriguez dissed him, perhaps proving that even demigods have their flaws.)

Jeter was not as talented as Rodriguez, who nonetheless had to move to third base when he came over to the Yanks. But Rodriguez – the insecure perfectionist – was never as good in the post-season as he was in the regular. Whereas you could always rely on Jeter when the chips were down in October. It’s fitting that he should have closed out his career at Yankee Stadium by driving in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth.

But perhaps more than his clutch play, the Yankee captain conducted himself like another legendary Yankee captain, Lou Gehrig. Even when late owner George Steinbrenner criticized Jeter for loving the nightlife, the whole thing was played for laughs in a Visa card commercial that ended with the Boss on a conga line.

He’s gone now, Steinbrenner. “Ghosts, a lot of ghosts here,” Jeter would say of Yankee Stadium – not only Lou but the Babe and Mickey and Joe D. Jeter understood his place in that world and never shrank from it. And in the age of TMZ, he managed to keep his private life relatively private.

He exits baseball, for the time being for I imagine he’ll be back in some capacity, as he entered it – with intelligence, taste and class.

Which is more than you can say for the NFL at the moment.

And yet, I couldn’t bring myself to feel sad. Is there anything more delicious than a career successfully concluded with a bright future still stretching out before you?

But then, though I’ll always love the Yankees, I’m no longer in love with them.

They have lost the power to move me.