Derek Jeter began his career as a wisp on the calm shores of Baseball-as-National Pastime. He dipped his bat into still waters with the uncanny ability to not lose. Before he could properly puff on a cigar, his right hand was laden with a quartet of rings. But the seas grew rougher. There was a strike. There was steroids. There was scandal.
There was Steinbrenner. There was Seinfeld. Then there wasn’t Steinbrenner.
An old stadium with charm and grit and banners and bunting. A new stadium with cupholders and wi-fi. An all-star game cut short. Congressional hearings. Posters torn from the walls leaving only thumbtacks and forgotten corners. An entire wing in Cooperstown sits empty like a car showroom of a discontinued brand. Weeds are starting to grow through the lot’s split concrete. Nature is taking over.
The championships which came so easily in early career seemed to take a bad hop and skip through his legs. October 2001 seemed as good a time as any for a reboot–the soot of broken hearts barely settled from the world-changing events of the month prior—yet upstart Arizona somehow absconded with the Commissioners Trophy and buried it in the desert.
The man who won four in his first five seasons would have to wait almost a decade, until 2009, to get one for the thumb. In that time, he watched Boston and their beards overcome the curse of the Bambino from the front row in his dugout. He blinked and then goodbye to golden-boy teammates, homegrown in a lab, part pinstripe, part precision, all heart—Jorge and Andy and Bernie and finally Mariano; he watched as they all took that fateful final walk through the outfield grass and into the corn field.
His adopted brother A-Rod got hung up with the wrong crowd. That legacy will be in condominiums and cars and depositions and suppositions.
And then, like it always does in baseball, it came down to a single at-bat. A ninth-inning opportunity for a walk-off against the surprising and youthful division runaways Baltimore—a sprightly and unassuming team reminiscent of Jeter’s own fab five when he first came up.
With one out and a man in scoring position, Jeter didn’t wait for the announcers to set the stage. Forty-eight thousand Yankee fans lucky enough to be able to tell their grandchildren they were there, were there to watch the 40-year-old prodigy-in-winter slap a grounder with surgeon’s precision up the middle infield, dribbling into right for a base hit. Arms up before he punched the bag, his celebration was purely the end of something.
The tears, they did come. His old gang stood on the top step of the dugout, looking sullen and discarded in street clothes, gray streaks and faces drawn. What do these guys do now? Do they go home like the rest of us, cook up some dinner. Sit down and see what’s on. Maybe they stare in the dark and just ponder. Was it real? Could it have been? Was me who was away in the winters? Fishing and training and waiting for spring? Did I put on that uniform, perform out the play of a young boy’s dreams? Did I survive the tempest of the ever more toothless New York media, the gambit of my own owners’ scorn? And now, to this. A study full of mementos. A velvet-lined box in a drawer. Some scribbles on a piece of paper. A framed photo of someone who looks like me but can’t be him.
Shrunk down to mortal size.
*phone rings—it’s a coworker/buddy*
What’re you doing?
No. I’m trying to write about Derek Jeter.
Jeter? Why Jeter?
I dunno. It’s time.
You had all season. Season’s over.
You don’t even like Jeter, do you?
No. I don’t think so. I mean, there’s more to it than that. We’re about the same age and…
(pause) …Hello? (pause)
Sorry, switched to Bluetooth.
Bluetooth is sweet.
You put one of those things in your ear?
No. You’re just on speaker.
Where you watching the wild card games?
I dunno. Home I guess. I was going to maybe take the bus into work and have a few beers but the last bus home is like at eight.
So what’re you writing about Jeter?
I don’t know. I was debating. I was going to maybe do my career highlights next to his, but that seemed a little boring even though that’s the point. Or maybe about the chicks he’s banged, but a bunch of people have done that.
Yeah. He’s banged everyone.
Everyone but Erin Andrews from what I can tell.
Don’t mention her.
I feel like you’ve mentioned her in your last five columns. It’s getting kind of creepy.
…All right then, I’ll leave you to it. Will be interested to see what you come up with.
No. Not really. It’s the nice thing to say though—Bluetooth out.
On June 4, 2003, George Steinbrenner made it official that Jeter was The Captain. Jeter should have had that embroidered on every lapel—and maybe he did—because he became not only The Captain of the Yankee Clipper but of the town as well. “He represents all that is good about a leader,” Steinbrenner said. “I’m a great believer in history, and I look at all the other leaders down through Yankee history, and Jeter is right there with them.”
Though only one ring would come after that and Steinbrenner’s signature white turtleneck and blue blazer would go with The Owner quite literally to the grave, I think Jeter came to mean something more to New York and to baseball.
…It’s not just that Joe-average-guy/flip-flop fan is a little more blah a little more unkempt now; cargo shorts and a baggy shirt to hide some kind of work-a-day contempt sliding off his midsection. Nondescript white Nikes scuffed from tiny outside projects. A faraway look. Baseball, the beautiful game on the radiant grass is somehow less attainable and a little less relevant in the era post-mortgage crisis, post-Wall Street meltdown when nobody gets prosecuted, post-decade-and-a-half war in the Middle East which has no end in sight with a new generation of young men picking up the cause as radicals. Through the centuries, baseball has endured. It has survived world wars and a Depression and a country divided by race and ideology and yet, now in these first days of the collapse of this empire, it just seems so silly at times.
And maybe that’s the point of the end of Jeter. You can argue his stats. You can argue he wouldn’t have been much more than a journeyman infielder had he come up with the Royals, probably in the game for a decade or so before opening up one of those gross warehouse district pitching-and-hitting clinics in Tampa. But that’s not how it did go down. History is all grand brushstrokes and revisionist memory. And so, when he did step up to the plate and collect that game-winning hit, his 3,463rd—the sixth most in major-league history—the world did take notice for a moment …and that’s something baseball hasn’t made us do for a bit. And that’s something the game might not do, not in that way, again.
I’d like to think of Jeter as this kind of Alpha Male we either want to be or don’t admit that we want to be which makes us want to be him all the more. The Jeets in a $9k suit with a watch worth more than your mortgage tucked into a red leather booth. An array of empty glasses and bottles in front of him. The crowd blurs in his orbit. Plates cleared, tablecloth festively rumpled. Maybe a girl or two slinking next to him in sequins, purely ornamental. His eyes wide and aware. The bartender makes a vodka martini—the real kind. Chilled glass, a splash of Pernod and a swirl around the edges. He dumps the liquid garnish out. He gives the frosty shaker a couple more turns and pours the pristine toxin in. He lights a match with a thumb and squeezes the rind. The lemon oil ignites for a hot split second and the vapor melts into the glass. Jeter watches as the drink is brought his way from the bar, every step. It is set in front of him.
The Captain looks to his left and to his right. He doesn’t bother to take a sip. Instead he stares straight on, into the night and beyond. Now he’s there with the rest of us, in plain clothes. For a moment it feels nice. Then the next moment, it feels like things will never be the same again.