By Jason Keidel
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Stars are inherently and vehemently vain. Much of their motor is fueled by the conviction that they are better than everyone else.
Kobe Bryant, every bit the basketball player that Derek Jeter is a baseball player, said that he would never lounge around a locker room only to average 18 points per game. Likewise, will Jeter be happy as a .260 hitter?
I’ve put premature postmortems on Jeter and been burned. (And thousands of you have gleefully reminded me.) But only the most jaded Jeter fans could ignore the obvious. Derek Jeter is older, slower, and injured. And there will be a day when he can’t play anymore. Will it be this year or next?
The only reason you’d find the question absurd is because it’s Derek Jeter, exacerbated by the walking triage the Yankees have become. Reading the current Yankee lineup is like a roll call of red-shirts in a Star Trek episode, the ones who will turn into salt cubes before we learn their names.
But even Jeter knows that all stars and All-Stars die. It’s only a matter of time, which is no longer Jeter’s friend.
There comes a point in your profound, prepubescent bond with an athlete that stretches well into adulthood, where you can’t see through the haze of idolatry. We’ve all experienced it. Jeter is as much of your life as high school, college, and your first kiss. So no matter who suggests Jeter’s finish line is around the corner, you will cringe and curse the one who suggests it. I’m used to it.
Jeter has pulled off the impossible exacta of evoking hero worship without sharing himself with the very people who worship him. If observed objectively, there is absolutely no intimacy between Jeter and his fans.
The relationship is entirely corporate to him, his polished persona never smeared in years of using New York City as his personal wonderland. He is, off the diamond, the most boring star every to flash across Broadway’s sky. For all of A-Rod’s foibles, there is a vulnerability to him that at least reminds you he’s human.
Myriad New York icons have bared very public scars. Roger Maris lost his hair, Billy Martin lost his mind, and Mantle lost his battle with the bottle.
Father Time is finally throwing Jeter some serious chin music, snapping his ankle in October, and then taunting him back to practice before chipping it again. But Jeter is the Bernard Hopkins of baseball, swinging until he’s literally carted off. The Yankees surely hope he makes that decision before they have to.
“Jeter’s not a quitter!” you bark.
Retiring after 17 resplendent seasons isn’t quitting. It’s logical. Find one shortstop in the modern era who produced at 39. Cal Ripken switched to third base at 35. Ernie Banks switched positions at 30. Even Ozzie Smith, better in the field than all three combined, was a part-time player at 39. Jeter will be 39 the next time he swings at a live pitch.
Before you mention Mariano Rivera, remember that his circumstance is entirely different. ACL surgeries are almost routine, and Rivera pitches one inning a few times a week, as opposed to the endless grind of shortstop, where lunging, lateral movement – the very kind that crunched Jeter’s ankle – is also routine.
Of course, the question is academic, as Jeter will play sometime this year. But perhaps how he plays determines what he does next year. Does he want to be nudged north, toward the outfield? What happens the next time he tries his stabbing pirouette and can’t find first base?
The question is only offensive because you love Derek Jeter. If you’re under 30, he is all you’ve known, the dynastic emblem of your youth. But just as kids once wondered who would replace Ruth found Gehrig, and then DiMaggio, and then Mantle. I was reared on Reggie Jackson and then Don Mattingly. And then we were blessed with the Joe Torre juggernaut – a buffet of baseball character and characters who nursed a new generation of fans.
Someone will replace Derek Jeter, and do with with equal aplomb, even if it seems and sounds blasphemous to say today.
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