Beginning of the end for Derek Jeter, and for a Yankees era
TAMPA -- The look Derek Jeter had in his eyes Wednesday, which was the official beginning of the end of his playing career, was the same look that allowed him to play more games in a Yankee uniform than anyone in history and the same look that allowed him to keep the Hydra that is the New York media ever at arm's length. Call it prideful defiance.
Even at age 39, with the end in sight and a body that betrayed him last year, Jeter concedes nothing. It was vintage Jeter at his "media availability," as he called it -- ever defining life on his terms, in this case literally so. He said it wasn't a "press conference" and so it wasn't.
Jeter, who announced last week that the 2014 season would be his last, said he plans to play as often as he did in 2012, when he played 159 games and led the majors in plate appearances. He said he knows he has more than one year of baseball left in him, which is his way of saying he will go out with gas in the tank. And owner Hal Steinbrenner said Jeter "told me on the phone it's the best he's felt ever."
Ask any teammate, manager or trainer and they will nod knowingly about that look of defiance. There are bulls in Pamplona who concede more. The quintessential Jeter moment for me came when I asked him about the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series -- eight years after it happened. The play that tripled Arizona's run expectancy that inning was the throwing error by Mariano Rivera while trying to turn a bunt into a forceout at second base. The throw sailed away from Jeter, who was unable to stretch far enough to stay on the base and catch the ball.
Before the inning started, Jeter limped noticeably to his position at shortstop. Twenty days earlier, in Game 5 of the ALDS, Jeter smashed hip-first into a padded concrete wall while chasing a popup at Yankee Stadium. He wasn't the same the rest of that postseason, hitting .136. You could see that his lower half was compromised. And you could still see it in the ninth inning of Game 7.
And yet even eight years later, when I made the mistake of thinking distance from the event would allow the slightest bit of concession to bubble up from within him, Jeter would have none of it. I tried six different to get Jeter to acknowledge the extent of his injury at the time. Six different times he gave me a version of the same answer: "I was all right." (Though to be more specific, in Jeterian speak, he said I was ah-right, which is simply another layer of deflection, the cool of his composure practically dripping Freon.)
This is how you become the greatest shortstop since Honus Wagner, the Yankees' all-time hits leader and the ambassador who came out unblemished on the other side of the Steroid Era and the era of enormous media growth. He never played any of his 20 seasons without the constant pressure to win and the wolves of the gossip pages on his scent. He has played 2,602 games, only one of which came when his team was mathematically eliminated. This is how you do it: you give in to nothing.
"I've never been around anyone who can compartmentalize life as well as he does," said his long-time representative, Casey Close. "His focus on what he has in front of him is amazing."
Jeter provided a "media availability" event without tears, regret or concession. But there were admissions. For one, which comes as no surprise, he told reporters it was "by design" that he did not open up to them as much as they would have liked.
"That's how I felt I had to do it to make it this long in New York," he said.
More surprising was this admission: "I never really enjoyed the ride."
Jeter was so focused on winning the next game that he rarely did take a wide-angle lens look at his baseball life. There was one brief window in 2011 when he closed in on 3,000 hits. At the urging of his parents, Jeter allowed himself to soak in the moment and the days leading up to it. He permitted a film crew to follow him around, not for the self-aggrandizement of it but to provide a keepsake, something he would like to show to the children he wants to have one day. He will try to bring a similar perspective to this season.
"You almost blink," he said, "and it's 20 years later."
Writing an ending is hard stuff. O. Henry and James Brown were good at endings. Ted Williams nailed his one in baseball. Most struggle. Mike Schmidt woke up one day on a road trip in San Diego and knew he was done, and the suddenness of it brought him to tears. (Though when asked at his press conference what he would miss most, Schmidt replied, "Room service French fries.") Sandy Koufax knew before his last season that he would retire at its conclusion; he told writer Phil Collier, who wrote the story and kept it in his drawer all year until Koufax gave him the okay to run it. Koufax quietly spent the year soaking in his last trip to each National League city -- that way nobody could make a fuss over him.
Jeter couldn't be Koufax because the media is too large and hungry now. He knew he would have to parry questions all season about how long he planned to play, and if he had made up his mind already, the awkwardness of such a dance would have bothered him and possibly the team.
Jeter knew in December this would be it. He told close friends -- nobody keeps a tighter, more loyal inner circle than Jeter -- and they told him to continue to mull it, to make certain this is what he wanted.
"This has nothing to do with how I feel physically," the defiant one said Wednesday. But it did have much to do with his ankle and leg injuries last year. He never before had been hurt worse than a separated shoulder in 2003 that put him out six weeks. Missing all but 17 games last year took the joy from him and gave him time to think about what was coming next besides the next game. The unmarked roads of The Rest of Life jarred him. Suddenly the idea of not playing baseball was appealing, if only for the possibilities it presented. Had he played healthy last season, who knows if this headstrong shortstop would have even entertained such thoughts?
And so Jeter began composing his goodbye letter. In typical Jeter fashion, he started jotting ideas into a notebook and kept writing, editing and re-writing. "I wrote every word," he said, a necessary disclaimer in a sports world where "handlers" tell a client what to think and say. He could have written many more pages, he said.
When he was done, on Feb. 11, the night before he would hit the send button, Jeter called Steinbrenner. The call went to voice mail. Steinbrenner didn't recognize the area code and didn't bother to check the voice mail. It wasn't until the next morning that Jeter connected with him.
"I thought he was calling about the team," Steinbrenner said. "It was a surprise."
Jeter wanted to release it on Facebook because he could control the message. He didn't want media outlets to "cut and paste" his message -- a career's worth of emotions and heartfelt thanks boiled down to some editor's idea of one sound bite or "money quote."
"It's a strange thought," Steinbrenner said, "to think about the Yankees without Derek in the lineup."
There is a season to play first. Manager Joe Girardi had some awkward moments with the last days of Jorge Posada, and may be headed there with Jeter. If Jeter truly is intent on playing every day, what does the manager do if his instincts tell him Jeter needs frequent days off, if only as a preventive measure?
No matter how much Jeter plays this year, his departure will create an enormous vacuum in the clubhouse and the organization. Jeter has been, for all of his self-evident editing when it comes to his personal self, incredibly available and accountable for such a star player. He owns every room he walks into, but especially his clubhouse. His pride in being responsible, not to mention his sheer star power, took weight off his teammates. There is no such alpha male or easy headline waiting in line behind him.
Think of the Orioles after Cal Ripken or the Royals without George Brett. Baltimore posted 10 straight losing seasons after Ripken left, extending the four losing ones at his end. Kansas City did have one winning season immediately after Brett left, but that was the strike year in 1994; it had eight straight losing seasons after that.
Now take Jeter and the New York market and the expectations that come with the Yankees and you can see how much more massive becomes the void. It's not to say the Yankees will fall into an era of losing just because a 40-year-old shortstop walks away. It's to say that his departure is bigger than however many games he plays this year.
Of course, you couldn't get a day like Wednesday without everybody's favorite media game these days: The Legacy Question. I don't know how we've turned into an entire society of wanna-be historians, but the most overused word in sports has become "legacy," when in fact people are talking about reputations. Good gracious, somebody is bound to be asking Mike Trout any day now about his legacy.
Jeter at least has drawn a finish line. And so when asked to define his own legacy, he responded in part, "Being a Yankee is good enough for me."
It's what he dreamed about as a child -- playing shortstop for the Yankees. And when he leaves, his dream still will be the same one many kids have from the time they first slip a glove onto their hand, and the Yankees still will be the Yankees. But they won't be Jeter's Yankees anymore.