By Jason Keidel
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Through his high deeds under brown leaves, his hunger and humility, and for being so impossibly proper in all things, Derek Jeter has become the emblem of Americana. He is hot dogs and apple pie, an essential member of our pastime’s most essential entity: The New York Yankees.
Few men are so swathed in the essence of victory. Derek Jeter is embodied with the regal presence of Joe DiMaggio, the blue-collar grit of Don Mattingly, and the white-collar sensibilities of Joe Torre.
He had the boyish good looks of a prince and the regal manner of a king. He has somehow lived above the masses while making them feel like family. He made Madison Avenue his throne, and, even by the most objective metric, has probably lived the most charmed life in the history of team sports.
You can’t teach what Derek Jeter has, what he is, what he’s done. He has that inherent sense of stardom without the native hubris, the sense of entitlement we see in so many coddled stars. If anyone in history were made to do something, Derek Jeter was made to be a New York Yankee.
He has become the mythology, the notion that wearing the Yankees uniform imbues you not only with special athletic splendor but also biblical virtue. Jeter somehow navigated the Yankees, fame, and New York City without a single misstep, dodged every land mine that comes with obscene celebrity.
There were no toxic late nights. No drunken home videos. No narcotics. No steroids. No Cromartie brood, no Shawn Kemp stable of baby mamas and dramas that so often derail the star’s path to stardom, chewing through his wallet, his cash, and cachet. He is the anti-A-Rod. He shares the third baseman’s talent, yet none of his torment.
But now it’s over.
The pall over his presser made 2013 official. And it should fuel his gold-plated path to broadcaster’s booth. Derek Jeter needs to retire, though we know he won’t. His solemn press conference, at times testy and a testimonial to the stubbornness and competitiveness that made him so great, is what will make his exit so inelegant.
Because of what he means to millions and the millions he’s made, Jeter has landed in that awkward place – a purgatory of will, with none of the skill. As long as they’ve thrown, caught, or hit a ball, we’ve seen the legend’s slow descent into mediocrity.
Jeter hit a homer in his first at-bat this year, keeping with his obscene sense of timing.
And he hasn’t hit one since.
He has one double.
He has one triple.
Jeter’s orbit is so high, his reality so detached from ours, it would make sense if his eyes could not adjust to a new reality. He was even prescient enough to join the exclusive low-number club, and will soon join his single-digit predecessors in the Hall of Fame, Monument Park, and even Yellowstone Park, if he so desires.
But it’s time to let him go. He is not Derek Jeter anymore, not in any way you understood him. They’re always the last to know. Sadly, Jeter will force the Yankees to yank him from the infield, literally rip the uniform off his increasingly creaky body. He won’t go quietly.
It’s the ancient refrain of the aging icon. His hairline crawls up his cap. His waistline bulges a bit. His legs don’t have the same spring. The fastball he used to swat down the line is chopped foul. He doesn’t have the signature stab, spin, and jumping pirouette, heaving the ball to first, beating the huffing runner by a shoelace.
He’s averaged about 150 games per season, only once playing less than 120. He’s appeared in 17 games this season. He hit .316 last year. He’s batting .190 this year. He had 216 hits last year. He has 12 this year, and has nearly as many strikeouts (10).
In a perfect world, last season would have been a perfect curtain call, an appropriate exit stage right, right to Cooperstown. Only in 1999 did he have more hits (219), and he never registered more at-bats. It was a dreamy, retrograde joy ride with the masses, a final stroll down memory lane.
Now everyone must walk gingerly around him, his presence, his aura, his nimbus, petrified to make the clear case that it’s over for the captain. He is cursed by the one, irreversible stat. He turns 40 next summer.
Jeter has a player option for $8 million in 2014. With rather unrealistic incentives, it could mushroom to $17 million. He will exercise the option, of course, because he belongs in that uniform and because no one else would pay a fraction of his current salary. And because not even Brian Cashman or the Steinbrenner tribe has the stones or bones to say no.
What makes a divine athlete sublime is his ability to delude himself. The broken ankle is fine. I don’t need a day off. Put some ice on it. Put some heat on it.
Soon Joe Girardi will have to hide Jeter in the bottom of the lineup, find a place in the field that feeds his middle-age limbs. And while being Derek Jeter gets him a pass this year, you’re unlikely to feel the same sentiment if he hits .250 next year.
If you’re 25 years old, Jeter is all you’ve known, the dynastic symbol of your childhood. But someone once your age once wondered how life could continue after Ruth, forgetting about a guy named Gehrig, who was followed by DiMaggio, who was followed by Mantle. My pals and I were reared on the Bronx Zoo, nursed by “Reggie” candy bars and memories of three homers on three pitches from three pitchers.
The year I turned eleven I watched in horror as Larry Holmes assaulted my hero, Muhammad Ali. Savage, smug, and inarticulate as ever, Holmes told my television screen that he always knew he could beat Ali, so proud of pummeling a geriatric. It was the first time I ever really wanted to hurt someone. Jeter has none of these problems, doesn’t need to fight Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas for cash, or pose in d-Con commercials to pay for his myriad wives and the young lives they produced.
How do you replace Derek Jeter? You don’t. A kid will start at short someday, roaming a sacred spot in the infield, and you will eventually forget.
Resist your impulse to pity Derek Jeter. He has owned New York City for nearly two decades, taking so many bites of the Big Apple, at his iconic, laconic pace. He made $1 million per game this season. And he has been paid over $253 million to be worshiped by a generation of boys, men, and boys who became men during his bejeweled tenure as baseball deity.
Resist your impulse to feel sorry for Derek Jeter. He took the 15 minutes Andy Warhol allotted and stretched it over 18 years. His wits, wallet, and presence assure him a most colorful sunset. Someday you’ll realize that it’s not Derek Jeter you miss but rather what he represents – your adolescence, a time when you thought good times were eternal.
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