NEW YORK — This has been a season of lasts for Derek Jeter, and another one came on Thursday night. It was the beginning of his last homestand as a professional baseball player.
Others who have in recent years had the rare luxury of leaving the game on their own terms, like Chipper Jones and Mariano Rivera, have spent countless hours of their valedictory tours holding court with the members of the press who had covered them for so long, with the knowledge that it would all be over soon and the desire not to leave anything unsaid. Jeter, though, has behaved as he has for 20 years. He has been polite but distant, and laconic. Still, on Thursday afternoon, the New York beat writers lined up by the laundry baskets near his suite of lockers in the back of the Yankees' clubhouse to wait for his arrival, hoping that perhaps now would be the time that he would open up, as his predecessors had. He didn’t.
At five minutes to four, Jeter entered the clubhouse and sat down in his stall, next to a pile of 14 boxes of Jordan Brand cleats. He wears a fresh pair each day — “I have a system,” he said — as he is now also in the business of manufacturing valuable artifacts. He was turned away from the gathering throng, but as he started to pull on two layers of socks the questions began, directed at the back of his nearly shaved head. They covered two topics: A poignant Gatorade commercial that had been released earlier on Thursday, in which he greets fans as he makes a long walk, set to Frank Sinatra's "My Way," through the Bronx and into Yankee Stadium; and, of course, his feelings about the homestand against the Blue Jays.
“It was an opportunity, I felt, for me to thank people,” he said of the first topic, declining to turn and look at the clubhouse televisions even when it was pointed out that the commercial was playing at that very moment. "How much the fans have meant for me in my entire career. Sort of a way for me to thank them for what they’ve meant for me. It was a fun experience. Didn’t take long. We were only out there for 30 minutes or something. I gotta work, you know?"
He said that he had selected the music, with its theme of staying true to one's self as the end nears. "I like the song," he said. "I've always liked the song. I thought it was fitting. I thought it fit what I’m going through."
He began to pull on his uniform pants, and he showed less patience for the other topic. Someone asked him what the experience of playing his final homestand would be like for him. "I don’t know, because as soon as I walked in here, you guys came over here, so I haven’t even been outside," he said. "The homestand right now, for me, is media."
As the crowd drew closer, and its members thrust their voice recorders at his head — he was speaking fairly quietly, and nobody wanted to miss anything — another reporter asked him for his message to fans on this particular occasion. "Message?" Jeter said. "I’ve given plenty of messages to the fans. They know how I feel about them. I had an opportunity to thank them on, what was the date, the seventh, I believe." Sept. 7th had been Derek Jeter Day. "I want to just try to enjoy it. But like I said, I haven’t even been outside yet. I want to play games, and I’m looking forward to playing the games. Yep, that’s how I enjoy it."
As Jeter began to button his jersey, someone tried another tactic. Was he mentally processing the fact that this was his last homestand? "Processing it?" Jeter said. "It's all anyone’s been talking about. I'd like to enjoy it. I'd like to get out there, but there's nothing changed from yesterday when we spoke in Tampa to when I walked in today, because I haven't even been outside yet. I can't give you anything until I've experienced something. I'd like to experience it first."
Jeter stood up and began examining the two Yankees caps that sat on his locker's top shelf, selecting one of them based upon the same mysterious internal calculus he uses to choose that day’s cleats. What, someone asked — desperately, now — was his favorite part of all this? "Playing games is my favorite," he said. "Now I’ve got to finish getting dressed and go outside. And then I can give you something once I’ve done something. We good? I’m late to begin with."
He wasn't late. Stretch wasn't due to begin until 4:10, and it was barely four — still three hours from the game to which he'd been looking forward, and in which he would hit a home run, his first at home all year and, therefore, probably his last at home, ever. As he strode out of the clubhouse before the Yankees' 3-2 win, some of the writers began stage whispering comments with which they hoped he might meaningfully engage. "Ten days. Never again," said one, futilely.
By 4:07, Jeter had picked out a bat and was ready, finally, to go outside. "Good luck, captain!" a female Japanese reporter called after him, as he made his way toward the entrance to the field. He didn't turn around.