He announced his retirement on Facebook, which may seem weird given his reticence about public life but probably makes sense in the broadest scope. Derek Jeter, after all, belongs to the people. Not once has he ever sought our approval, but he received it like few athletes of his generation — our admiration, our reverence, our fascination — during a complex time when America grew to distrust many of his peers.
This is a man who played in New York, where media knives could have carved up the eligible baseball prince with the harem of ladies, and somehow pulled it off for 18 seasons without the slightest hint of scandal. This is a man who played for the Yankees, a wobbly franchise when he arrived, and restored class and pride to the pinstripes while winning five World Series championships. This is a man who played in the era of performance-enhancing drugs, a plague that brought down gifted teammates such as Alex Rodriguez and Roger Clemens, and not once was he suspected of taking more than a vitamin.
Derek Jeter has been a sporting miracle, an inextinguishable candle amid baseball’s darkness. “In the 21-plus years in which I have served, Major League Baseball has had no finer ambassador,” commissioner Bud Selig said. “Since his championship rookie season, Derek has represented all the best of the national pastime on and off the field. He is one of the most accomplished and memorable players of his — or any — era.”
And he is leaving, at season’s end, giving New York and America ample time to honor him. It’s shocking, in a way, that he’d even let us in on his decision before the season, not figuring him as a farewell-tour kind of guy. Chipper Jones, a ham, milked his final season. Mariano Rivera, a humanitarian, connected with people from all walks. Jeter? Can you really picture him in Kansas City, accepting a plaque? Won’t he feel uncomfortable in Boston on Sept. 30, likely his final game at Fenway Park, where the average ticket price for the event leaped to almost $1,000 a few hours after his Wednesday announcement?
Yet it’s also possible we really don’t know Derek Jeter, who was so intense throughout his career, regardless of a game’s importance, that he placed himself in a hermetically sealed cocoon. His Facebook letter was forthright, warm, candid, starting with a thank you to the fans.
“I know they say that when you dream you eventually wake up,” Jeter wrote. “Well, for some reason, I’ve never had to wake up. Not just because of my time as a New York Yankee but also because I am living my dream every single day.”
The dream began to fade, he realized, when he was limited to 17 games last season. A broken left ankle, suffered in the 2012 playoffs following a splendid regular season in which he batted .316 with 216 hits, will be remembered as the beginning of the end. Thankfully, Jeter does not want to be one of those legends who hangs on too long and affixes an unpleasant ending to the grandest memories. “Last year was a tough one for me,” he wrote. “As I suffered through a bunch of injuries, I realized that some of the things that always came easily to me and were always fun had started to become a struggle. The one thing I always said to myself was that when baseball started to feel more like a job, it would be time to move forward.
“So really it was months ago when I realized that this season would likely be my last. As I came to this conclusion and shared it with my friends and family, they all told me to hold off saying anything until I was absolutely 100 percent sure. And the thing is, I could not be more sure. I know it in my heart. The 2014 season will be my last year playing professional baseball.”
Those words are difficult to swallow today. When Jeter arrived in the Bronx in the mid-’90s, baseball was coming off a devastating work stoppage that killed one World Series and sent popularity adrift, never to fully recover. Not that he and Rivera, his teammate, didn’t do their best to uphold the game’s finest traditions. He was a humble kid from Kalamazoo, Mich., yet his ambitions were as big, a city he took over with remarkable ease and cool. I remember asking him, in the middle of Jordanmania, if he hoped to have as big a career as Michael Jordan.
“Why compare?” he said, meaning no disrespect but reminding me that he was Derek Jeter and he would create his own special place.
Unlike MJ, who was spectacular in his showmanship and prolific in his numbers, Jeter’s niche was understated. He was the prominent face and image of the most valuable franchise in team sports, and it was his lead-by-example presence that made him one of the greatest of Yankees. “I’ve experienced so many defining moments in my career: winning the World Series as a rookie shortstop, being named the Yankees captain, closing the old and opening the new Yankee Stadium,” he wrote. “Through it all, I’ve never stopped chasing the next one. I want to finally stop the chase and take in the world. For the last 20 years, I’ve been completely focused on two goals: playing my best and helping the Yankees win. That means that for 365 days a year, my every thought and action were geared toward that goal. It’s now time for something new.
“From the time I was a kid, my dream was always very vivid and it never changed: I was going to be the shortstop for the NY Yankees. It started as an empty canvas more than 20 years ago, and now that I look at it, it’s almost complete. In a million years, I wouldn’t have believed just how beautiful it would become.”
That he is capable of taking a long view of life — he wants to “take in the world” — means Jeter is one part world-weary public figure and one part curiosity seeker. He can have a career in media if he wants, or he can have a career in managing. I’d like to see him in a front office, preferably as a general manager, and if Hal and Hank Steinbrenner are wise, they’d sign him to a long contract and have him learn the trade from current GM Brian Cashman. You don’t let a man as smart as Derek Jeter get away, especially after pulling off the rarity of a legendary athlete playing his entire career for only one organization.
He has loved being a Yankee. Why shouldn’t he continue to be a Yankee, even if he lives in Tampa and even if the Rays — as they really should do the very nanosecond the season ends — make him an offer to work in their front office?
“So many people have traveled along this journey with me and helped me along the way: I want to especially thank The Boss, the Steinbrenner family, the entire Yankees organization, my managers, my coaches, my teammates, my friends, and of course, above all, my family,” Jeter wrote. “They taught me incredible life lessons and are the #1 reason I lasted this long. They may not have been on the field, but they feel they played every game with me, and I think they are ready to call it a career as well. I also couldn’t have done it without the people of New York. NY fans always pushed me to be my best. They have embraced me, loved me, respected me and have ALWAYS been there for me.
“This can be a tough, invasive, critical and demanding environment. The people of this city have high expectations and are anxious to see them met. But it’s those same people who have challenged me, cheered me, beat me down and picked me back up all at the same time. NY made me stronger, kept me more focused and made me a better, more well-rounded person. For that I will be forever grateful. I never could have imagined playing anywhere else. I will remember it all: the cheers, the boos, every win, every loss, all the plane trips, the bus rides, the clubhouses, the walks through the tunnel and every drive to and from the Bronx. I have achieved almost every personal and professional goal I have set. I have gotten the very most out of my life playing baseball, and I have absolutely no regrets.”
Regrets? As once stated by a man heard after games in Yankee Stadium, a certain Frank Sinatra, “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.” What is to regret about a first-ballot Hall of Fame career, 13 All-Star appearances, 3,316 hits and a .312 lifetime batting average to go with those five championships? It’s a shame the Yankees are in no position to win another this season, rating no better than seventh among American League teams (and as low as fourth in the AL East) after a bizarre offseason in which they watched Robinson Cano sign a $240 million deal in Seattle, exhaled in relief when hot mess Alex Rodriguez accepted his 162-game PED suspension and spent a half-million dollars venturing into the unknown with Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran.
This way, Jeter announces in advance that he’s going out on his own terms, asking Yankees boss Hal Steinbrenner to keep the news private before the Facebook announcement. Even if he is injured again, even if he has a sub-standard season and is replaced, he controls the narrative.
“Now it is time for the next chapter,” he wrote. “I have new dreams and aspirations, and I want new challenges. There are many things I want to do in business and in philanthropic work, in addition to focusing more on my personal life and starting a family of my own. And I want the ability to move at my own pace, see the world and finally have a summer vacation.
“But before that, I want to soak in every moment of every day this year, so I can remember it for the rest of my life. And most importantly, I want to help the Yankees reach our goal of winning another championship. Once again, thank you.”
Derek Jeter wants a summer vacation. Derek Jeter wants a family. Derek Jeter wants peace.
He has earned all of it, and more.
And why is he thanking us? We should be thanking him, as we will the next eight months. So nice of him to give us a heads-up.