By Jason Keidel
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It was a perfect day for perfect career.
It was too fitting — if not ordained — that it was a cool, cloudless day to recall the career of an icon who never let us see him sweat. And if you saw the conga line of luminaries honoring Derek Jeter at Yankee Stadium yesterday, you also realize his deeds reached way west of the Hudson.
Jeter is a rare, contemporary dichotomy: so comfortable sharing the spotlight, yet so uncomfortable commanding it. He always prospered when the lights were brightest and the moment was most dire, yet little things like a quick tip of the cap made the eternally modest shortstop squirm.
We’ve all acknowledged some level of overkill during this yearlong retirement tour. The Yankees have even gone so far as to decorate their sacrosanct uniform in order to profit from Jeter’s departure.
But that should not, could not, cannot, detract what has been a miraculous run in pinstripes, and in the media fishbowl of the Big Apple.
We all have a Jeter moment that resonates. Maybe it’s the home run against the Mets in the 2000 World Series, which essentially ended the Fall Classic. Maybe it was the flip in Oakland in 2001.
Mine is that sweaty, July night in 2004. I was maybe 15 yards away when he dove headfirst into the stands to catch that foul ball against the Red Sox. Like so many of his out-stretched moments in his montage, he emerged bruised yet dignified.
That was back when the Yankees still held their mythical and mystical perch atop the sport and all sports, where the uniform seemed to imbue the player with not only athletic splendor but also biblical virtue, when the Yanks were still gatekeepers to the Curse of the Bambino.
Little did we know it would all end a few months later, when the Bombers blew that 3-0 lead to Boston and thus end all our mouthy mythologizing and knock us from our perch as the arbiters of our pastime.
But not even the most ugly collapse in baseball history detracted from Jeter’s place as the high priest of the sport. He’s almost universally revered, from fans to players to coaches to owners, from the mainline baseball devotee to the pop culture connoisseur.
Another shortstop, Cal Ripken, carried that torch for years while passing Lou Gehrig’s blessed, consecutive-game record. Then he passed it to Jeter, who would also pass the Iron Horse in another category – all-time hits leader for the Yankees. It was one of many, mythologized men Jeter has passed over the last few years, which sees him now with more hits than anyone in baseball history, save a select five. Whether he likes it or not, Jeter’s numbers put him among the Gods.
Not all of you loved the Yankees, but you all admired Jeter. Heck, not all Yankees fans worshiped Jeter, but we held him in sacred regard. To deny what Jeter has meant to the Yankees, to New Yorkers, is to deny our existence as New Yorkers.
And for Jeter to remain as clean among the chaos of Gotham as he did on that dirt in the Bronx is as miraculous as any hit, win, or World Series. Jeter somehow managed to dodge the laser beams of paparazzi and social media while living a rather privileged and public life.
And we’re all aware of the irony that Jeter, so ensconced in playoff baseball, whose high deeds under brown leaves made him a legend, will leave long before October games grip the sport. For most of his career, Jeter had his mail forwarded to the postseason, when the weather grew sleeves on the players, and put Jeter in his rightful place at the plate in a game that really mattered.
His baseball life, which started with such astounding autumn glory, will end without a chance to give the world one last snapshot, one more swing toward a World Series ring. Not even the most elegant athletes get to end their careers on top. So we have just a few, select weeks to see him through the old hues of the halcyon years.
You remember his stance, digging his cleats into the dusty batter’s box, nodding to catcher and umpire, raising his right arm toward the umpire, as if balancing a butterfly on his right wrist, ready to face the pitcher for the first, fourth, or five-thousandth time.
We can list the numbers, his hits, his place in the playoff pantheon, his endless montage of moments. But what made Derek Jeter special never appeared in a box score. You can decide what that is, but we all know what it is. And we also know we can’t explain it to someone who wasn’t there to see it.
And in a month no one will see Derek Jeter at shortstop anymore. And for all his memorable moments, that is a most forgettable fact.
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