Editor’s note: This story on Derek Jeter was originally published in the Sept. 26, 2014, issue of ESPN The Magazine. Watch Jeter’s “Mr. November” game — which started on Oct. 31, 2001, but ended just past midnight on Nov. 1 — on Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN and the ESPN App.
START ANYWHERE. Take any moment from the Long Goodbye and it will stand for the whole. Take the other night, for example, a game in Baltimore. The Yankees, still technically in the mix for a postseason berth, the way the middle class still technically exists, sent their captain to the plate to get something started. Eighth inning, score tied — this was his kind of moment, and everyone knew it, and the crowd stirred, and rose, and aimed their phones, hoping to capture one final spark of magic. The smattering of Yankees fans clapped and broke into that familiar chant, which has become his theme song, his war cry. Two descending musical notes, G-sharp, F, G-sharp, F, a downward sloping cadence that sounds almost like a playground taunt. DER-ek JE-ter! Nyah-nyah, nyah-nyah. But the chant, the excitement, it was all just muscle memory and frantic nostalgia and burned out tropes, because this wasn’t the Jeter the crowd knew, the Jeter anyone knew — this was the 40-year-old Jeter, the Jeter hitting 59 points below his lifetime average, the Jeter trapped in the nightmare of an 0-for-23, crawling on a surgically mended ankle toward retirement. After working the count in his favor, 2-0, he fouled off a pitch. Then looked at another strike, 2-2. Now he stepped out of the box and took a deep breath. He didn’t look worried. On the contrary he seemed to be … talking to himself. Or else humming. Some kind of song. The way his lips were moving, it looked something like, “Tum-tee, TUM-tee, TUM …?”
“I wasn’t humming a song,” he says a few days later.
His tone, polite but firm, adds: Idiot.
Well, maybe not a song. … His handsome face remains impassive, but some twitch of the eyebrow, some tremor of the cheek, says: Sorry, man. I don’t hum.
OK, forget the humming. Point is, he just looked so relaxed.
He nods. “I try to relax as much as I can. Playing this game, I’m not afraid to fail. I don’t like it, and after I do it I don’t want to talk about it, but I’m not afraid of it, so every time I’m in a situation I try to think about times I’ve been successful and I try to relax.”
He did not look relaxed after he stepped back into the box and swung through the next pitch. Strike 3. And he looked anything but relaxed as he walked back to the dugout. His face — ovoid, smooth, immensely expressive while almost always wholly unrevealing — showed real concern. There was sadness in the pale limeade eyes, and something more than sadness. Maybe grief?
Of course, if you were ever to bring it up to him, even if you showed him video evidence, he’d only tell you that you’re wrong.
And you very well might be.
THE STORY OF every athlete, at heart, is the story of a betrayal. Sometimes, through lack of focus, or lack of commitment, or some moral lapse, the athlete betrays his gifts, or his team, or his game. More often it happens this way: The athlete is betrayed by his body. Our time is short, our playtime shorter. The weak flesh oppresses the willing spirit. That bleak scene in Act 3 of “The Pride of the Yankees,” when Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig opens and closes his trembling fist, staring in horror at its ebbing strength — that’s the norm. One day the body, which has always said yes, says not just no but hell no. Gehrig had a disease, yes, but every athlete has a disease, as does every human being. Time is the disease, and all the ice bucket challenges in the world won’t cure it.
Derek Jeter knows this. He might have known it from the start, from the day he became the sixth pick in the first round of the 1992 draft, and yet you always felt he didn’t know, not really, which was part of the joy of watching him play. His durable, willful boyishness was a form of rebellion, an F-you to the hourglass. Careful of his gifts, respectful of his game, devoted to his team, possessed of deep moral rectitude — or else obsessive discretion and top-notch security people — Jeter carried himself, presented himself, as if there would be some quid pro quo, as if that svelte body, which looks as if it could still fit easily into his rookie uni, might grant him time off for all the good behavior.
He sometimes said as much. Gene Michael, the shrewd executive who helped build Jeter’s first championship clubs, once asked Jeter if there wasn’t something else he wanted to do with his life. Nope, Jeter said: All I want to do is play baseball. With Michael, with close friends, Jeter spoke openly, blithely, of his intention — not hope, intention — to play into his 40s.
His blitheness was understandable. Jeter’s career has been ridiculously long, misleadingly long, four times longer than the average baseball player’s. He made his major league debut in the previous century, three wars ago, before Jay Z released his first album, before there was an Internet per se — so he can be forgiven if he came to regard himself as baseball’s Benjamin Button, as some kind of Bronx Ponce de Leon. But when his youth fountain spluttered last year, then went bone-dry this year around the anniversary of Thurman Munson’s death, it was a difficult thing to see, and doubly difficult to see him seeing it. After clubbing into yet another double play, he occasionally looked like Cooper qua Gehrig glaring at that useless fist. (How odd that this summer, of all summers, while the 11th captain in the 112-year history of the Yankees was coming to grips with his end, everyone was getting doused to “raise awareness” of the wasting malady that killed Captain Number Five.)
Maybe it’s wrong to speak so much of death when considering the end of a baseball career. But it is a death, a little death, a petite mort, as the French say, though not the way they mean it, god knows. Even as we celebrate and commemorate Jeter, we understand and grieve what’s happening to him. Jeter the businessman, the public figure, is a relatively young man with a bright future who plans to go into book publishing. (Talk about a throwback.) But Jeter the ballplayer is on life support. After his final game at Fenway Park we’ll never see him again. From now until the sun burns out, like that little light above the oven that hasn’t worked since you moved in and you can’t find a replacement bulb anywhere — never. RIP, Captain. Requiéscat in pace, amen.
To be honest, the Yankees invite this kind of death talk. The Yankees, more than the Egyptians of the Middle Kingdom, fetishize death and dynasties and exalt the afterlife in order to gild and contextualize the flying moment. The Yankees let a dead man announce Jeter every time he steps to the plate. They play a recording of their in-house Thurston Howell, the eternally patrician Bob Sheppard (Oct. 20, 1910-July 11, 2010), who sounds as if he’s ordering a gin and tonic down at the club. Numbah Two-ah … Derek JE-tah. The Yankees recite the same obsessive necrology — Ruth Gehrig DiMaggio Mantle Maris — like a graveside Mass whenever another boy king passes over into eternity. Call it “tradition,” or “pride,” but at times, when they hold another Old-Timers’ Day or add another mummy to their Giza Plateau beyond center field, it can feel as ghoulish as a picnic with Marilyn Manson at Forest Lawn.
Sometimes the Yankees are so eager to celebrate the deceased, they embalm the living. Note the memorial patches on the players’ sleeves and caps this season, in honor of Jeter. You have to remind yourself at times that Jeter is still … with us.
Though not for long.
Even if the Yankees weren’t a death cult, even if the Yankees didn’t have a past, like the Rockies, or pretended they didn’t have a past, like the Brewers, Jeter’s Long Goodbye would still be a painful reminder of mortality, which baseball is supposed to make us forget. And his uncharacteristically average performance this season, his diminished physical condition, is a painful reminder that our talents, whatever they may be, though they form a key part of our personal identity, are on loan to us, a short-term lease, and when the Repo Man comes, he won’t be swayed by our begging, Wait, please, wait, just a little more time. Heedless, he’ll hoist them onto his flatbed and drive off. The way Jeter’s baseball life is petering out, rather than Jetering out, the way it’s ending not with a bang but an oh-fer, the way his team is missing the playoffs for just the third time in his career — it’s all an unwelcome reminder that everything falls apart, that the center cannot hold, that, as James Baldwin said, none of us is “outwitting oblivion,” in a summer when we didn’t need reminding. A summer of Ebola, Ferguson, ISIS, etc.
And just to make matters worse, the loss of Jeter comes at a time when we’re running dangerously low on high-character guys and we’re all stocked up on the low — Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Jameis Winston, Roger Goodell. (Are you there, God, it’s me, America: Why are you making Derek Jeter retire before Roger Goodell?)
Of course, the Long Goodbye was at times joyful. The eight-month fade to black, or navy blue, has occasionally prompted a heart-swelling giddiness, and it inspired two TV spots (Nike, Gatorade) that will be first-ballot entries into the Gooseflesh Hall of Fame. But mostly it’s been a downer. Again and again you could hear people, around the ballparks, on the streets, on social media, saying the same things.
Damn, can’t believe he’s retiring …
Wow, just realized Number 2 ain’t gonna be here no more … SMH.
The problem is, along with his many other virtues, Jeter has been so companionable. He’s always been so reassuringly there. On summer nights, and autumn nights, maybe especially autumn nights, it was a pleasure to turn on the TV and know he’d be at short, tugging the bill of his cap, doing that dancery thing he did every pitch, that half-step toward the hole or the plate just as the pitcher went into his windup. If you walked into any bar, from Midtown to Montauk, between, say, 7 p.m. and 11, Jeter would be above the bartender’s head, stepping lithely into the batter’s box, waggling his helmet, that dainty way he does, with the pointer finger in the ear hole, then holding his right palm to the ump, begging, Wait, please, wait, just a little more time. For 20 years, he’s been more than a great player, he’s been great company, and so he’ll be missed, not like a limb, not like a friend — but something like. And no one can truly gauge how much he’ll be missed until he’s gone, just as we didn’t know how much we’d miss other things until they were gone, like peace, and privacy.
That’s why this Long Goodbye is so damn sad.
PEOPLE LIKE TO say it isn’t sad. People lie. People just don’t want to admit it’s sad, because that might sound disrespectful, and the theme, the meme, the leitmotif of the Long Goodbye is “Re2pect.” But even one of Jeter’s oldest friends says that Jeter, secretly, is crushed, that the last at-bat “is going to crush him.”
Sometimes people allow that the Long Goodbye has been “bittersweet,” an even more execrable lie. Everything these days gets tagged with that feeble cop-out, that consummate Orwellian doublespeak. We’ve become so linguistically craven, so emotionally addled, we fear making clean, hard distinctions between even basic binaries like happy and sad, so we call complex rites of passage — breaking up, moving out, getting kicked off the island — bittersweet, a word without conviction, a word without soul. Let the record show that, notwithstanding those signs at Yankee Stadium (Nothing is sweeter than Derek Jeter!), the Long Goodbye was not sweet. It was bitter. And now it’s sad. Period.
You can just hear them, the haters, the anti-Jeterites, haw-hawing and pooh-poohing such talk as rank sentimentality. All this piety, they say, all this hoopla and blather, the legend thing, the icon thing, it’s all just a function of Jeter playing in New York. Jeter is good, they say, not great, and the Long Goodbye has been too long by half, and it’s frequently veered into kitsch.
Some days it’s hard to argue. Like when you sit in Yankee Stadium and on the scoreboard comes a heartfelt farewell from those baseball giants … Brian Williams and Kenny Chesney? Or when you read that a New Jersey farmer has shaved Jeter’s face into his cornfield. (Bob VonThun, the farmer in question, says he won’t be watching the last at-bat. He’ll be too busy giving tours of Jeter’s face.) Or when someone posts a video on YouTube of Jeter’s career highlights re-enacted by OYO figures. Or when a Manhattan “gentlemen’s club” offers free admission with every Jeter jersey. Somewhere between the Space Shuttle astronauts tipping their caps to Jeter in zero gravity and Gene Simmons making bromantic overtures to Jeter in a video that’s just plain hard to watch (“You’re a powerful and attractive man!”), there was a predictable outbreak of Jeter Fatigue, and by Labor Day it had become a pandemic. Jeter himself looked like Patient Zero. No one sounded more sick of talking about Derek Jeter than Derek Jeter. Then again, what else is new?
It doesn’t help that his last at-bat in Boston represents the fourth, no, fifth goodbye of the Long Goodbye. There was the emotional retirement news conference, Feb. 19. Then the emotional Final All-Star Game, July 15. Then the hyperemotional Derek Jeter Day at the Stadium, Sept. 7. (White folding chairs on the infield, a Periclean eulogy, Jeter’s grandmother being walked out by the manager — it felt like four funerals and a wedding, plus a quinceañera.) Then the devastatingly emotional final home game, Sept. 25, when he, you know.
Not to mention the mini goodbyes at every American League ballpark, plus a few in the National. Every other week, in Houston or Seattle, Baltimore or St. Louis, etc., another team presented Jeter with another giant cardboard check for his Turn 2 Foundation and another gift — bronze bat, cowboy boots, cuff links, crabs, stadium seats, paddleboard, kayak — all of which will soon fill an air-conditioned storage locker somewhere in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. (Jeter plans to spend his golden years down there; he’s built a 31,000-square-foot mansion that someone brilliantly dubbed St. Jetersburg.)
Finally, the appreciations. Oh lord, the appreciations. Writers, faced with a subject so vast, so done to death, a subject that felt at times like Lincoln, plus Shakespeare, with a side of Princess Di, have been gasping and stammering all summer, like Rain Man 15 minutes before Wapner, and a few have simply gone mad. Feel sad for the Jeter fans, but take pity on the writers. In desperation, some have chosen the New York journalist’s version of seppuku, i.e., calling Jeter a “fraud,” and “selfish,” knocking him for refusing to bench himself when slumping. (They did the same to Gehrig.) A few have hauled out the moth-eaten Jeter j’accuse, “overrated.” For the most part, however, they’ve just thrown in the sponge, warmed up the boilerplate platitudes, because … Jeter. How else do you write an appreciation of a man almost everyone already appreciates, a man who won’t let you appreciate him, won’t tell you squat even if you get him to sit still for a 25-minute interview, and will somehow make you respect him for telling you squat? More, how do you sound smart doing it when science shows that human beings have a strong “negativity bias.” Study after study proves that we favor someone who says negative things over someone positive, that we rate the negative person’s IQ higher.
But have fun trying to be negative — genuinely, accurately negative — about Derek Sanderson Jeter. And so the writers covering the Long Goodbye have exhibited a kind of aphasia. Fans, when speechless in the face of Jeter, can at least fall back on their chant. DER-ek JE-ter. Writers simply babble the greatest hits.
October 2001. Division Series against the Athletics. Appearing from nowhere, 50 feet out of position, Jeter grabs an errant cutoff and laterals to Jorge Posada, catching the forever-not-sliding Jeremy Giambi, killing a rally and saving the series, and the season.
November 2001. Game 4 of the World Series. Jeter belts a 10th-inning homer off feckless and fragile Diamondbacks closer Byung-Hyun Kim, who at this moment is somewhere having a stiff drink and muttering the lineup of the 2001 Yankees. Jeter’s homer ties the series at 2 and gives New Yorkers, reeling from 9/11, something to cheer. Also, because the at-bat begins in October and ends in November, a first in world history, it earns Jeter the best of his several sobriquets — Mr. November.
July 2004. A critical regular-season game against the Red Sox. Jeter chases a fly ball up the line, dives into the stands like Michael Phelps starting the 100-meter butterfly, then disappears, then emerges with bloodied chin and bruised eye and woozy expression — and the ball.
September 2008. The impromptu speech to close out the old Yankee Stadium. Jeter eloquently placates the evicted ghosts and the 50,000 dislocated fans, none of whom can understand the need for a new Stadium, because there was no need.
This is the form all writerly praise of Jeter must take — anecdotal, strictly external. It doesn’t touch the man’s core, and we don’t much care. Jeter isn’t loved for what he’s said as much as for what he’s done, and above all for what he’s not done. Two decades without scandal? It’s a feat as impossible, as improbable, as DiMaggio’s 56 games. And it wasn’t accomplished by some misanthropic agoraphobe who never left his crib in Trump Tower. Jeter likes a good time. He likes people. He likes women. A career bachelor, with exquisite taste, he’s put together a girlfriend résumé that’s astonishingly diverse, and there’s nary a shy librarian among them. Models, singers, actresses, party monsters — Jeter has dated the kinds of women who are typically, fairly or unfairly, known for drama, and none has ever said a bad word about him in print.
Now consider a partial list of sins that have been connected to Jeter’s teammates in the past two decades. Domestic abuse, check kiting, banned substances, drunken driving, assaulting a bartender, assaulting a security guard, perjury, probation violation, child sex abuse.
And that’s a partial list. Just from his own locker room. Never mind the rest of the league.
The most salacious Jeter headlines in the morning tabs? The Jeffrey Maier interference, which unfairly gave Jeter a home run in the 1996 playoffs. The “revelation,” from an unnamed source, that Jeter gives swag bags to women who overnight at his apartment. The contentious contract negotiations with the Yankees in 2010, after which Jeter proclaimed: “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t angry.”
Twenty years, that’s it.
In many ways, Jeter recalls that famous equation by economist Herbert Simon: “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” With Jeter there’s a wealth of information, a surfeit of attention, but a poverty of authentic knowledge. All that data — anecdotes, highlights, numbers, photos, stats, quotes — goes into the Media Trash Compactor and comes out as a blank slab, a creamy white wall that makes fans feel like Banksy on ephedrine. Onto Jeter the fan can paint or project whatever he wants, including things for which there’s scant evidence. In our age of Total Noise, and White Noise, Jeter’s grace and stoicism provide a healing, reparative quiet. Which we can then fill up with all our stuff.
THE MOST FAMILIAR emblem of the Yankees, more than the top hat on the bat, is that famous white facade around the vertiginous upper tier of the Stadium. (Any architect worth his T square will tell you it’s not actually a facade but a frieze, but never mind, we’re after metaphors, not accuracy.) The public Jeter, the Jeter of five rings and constant effort and consistent respectfulness, the Jeter hitting .309 lifetime (.308 in the postseason), is a facade. Maybe not a deliberate facade, or consciously deliberate, but a public face nonetheless, a polished front he wears as smartly as his cap. The facade doesn’t simply hide or overshadow the inner Jeter, the pin-striped ego and the road-gray id, it renders them moot. We know nothing of Jeter’s dark side, his demons and insecurities, whom he’s wronged, whom he’s slighted, who has wronged or slighted him, not merely because he doesn’t want us to know but because at this point we don’t want to know. As Elias Canetti wrote: “Don’t tell me who you are. I want to worship you.”
At some point Jeter realized this, figured it all out, whereas his fellow superstars never seem to. Count how many tweets we’ve received from LeBron James since The Decision. Then consider that Jeter, in five times that span, has never tweeted, never Instagrammed, and his few Facebook postings mainly concern children aided by his foundation. He did write a quasi memoir in 2000, though it seems aimed at tweens, and it contains zero revelations, and it’s ghostwritten in a golly gee willikers tone that makes the Boy Scout Handbook sound like Charles Bukowski. Jeter gets knocked for being guarded, but he’s not guarded, he’s just not open. If you went to the store and it wasn’t open, you’d move on without a thought. If you found a guard standing outside, you’d be suspicious. There’s a difference.
So, for argument’s sake, let’s concede that Jeter is a cypher, and let’s grant that the Long Goodbye has been overlong — even so, good luck not watching the last at-bat. Good luck, if you’re anywhere near a TV, looking away when they play and replay and re-replay Jeter making that last slow walk to the plate and the Fenway crowd roaring and showing him what can only be called … love. Good luck not feeling sad at the sight and sound of such love, not thinking that things were better, the world righter, when Jeter was reviled in New England, when the jamokes outside Fenway were hawking T-shirts that read “Brokeback Jeter” and having trouble keeping XXLs in stock. If you’re a Jeter fan, your heart will break at that surreal scene, but even if you’re a Cubs fan, or a Mariners fan, prepare yourself for some myocardial dysfunction. If you’re a baseball fan of any kind, Jeter’s last at-bat will be a workout for the deep nodes in your brain that equate baseball with manhood and fatherhood and America and the quintessence of life; it will be like watching “Field of Dreams” and “The Natural,” while wearing Ty Cobb’s old jock, while munching a box of Cracker Jack hand-roasted by Abner Doubleday’s mom and picking the kernels out of your teeth with a Mickey Mantle rookie card.
Still, still, leave baseball out of it. If you care anything about the culture, this is important, riveting theater. Years will pass, perhaps a generation or two, before we witness someone with this much street cred, and stat cred, and history and equity built up with such a diverse cross section of the population. America is polarized? Throughout the Long Goodbye, Jeter has received standing ovations in the Deep South, the Mid-Atlantic, the Pacific Northwest, the Great Plains. In Baltimore, a 50-something woman, 24 hours after receiving a dire diagnosis from her doctor, waited in her wheelchair outside the visitors’ exit, hoping to get Jeter’s autograph, because Jeter is her inspiration — her medicine. “He never gave up,” she said simply. In Tampa, a snow-haired granny draped herself over the top of the visitors’ dugout, virtually stopping the game until Jeter posed for a selfie.
Throw in the anomaly of Jeter’s 20 years with one organization, plus his 3,463 hits, more than all but five men in history, plus his 200 postseason hits, more than anyone ever, and this last at-bat comes into razor-sharp ultra-HD. Even if you’re in a medically induced coma, wake up. This is fricking big.
ALEXES BERNIER will be watching. The 17-year-old captain of the City Divas, a girls fast-pitch softball team in the Bronx, plays shortstop, wears No. 2 and strives in all things to be like her hero. So total is her adulation of Jeter, so complete is her mimicry of his mannerisms, friends and family don’t call her Alexes anymore. They just call her Cap’n.
Bernier has never known a day on this planet when Jeter wasn’t the Yankees’ starting shortstop, when his picture didn’t paper her bedroom walls, when she didn’t spend hours practicing his stance before a mirror — butt out, toes in, bat high above her head, twirling like a straw in a dust devil. Jeter’s departure posits a new kind of void for Bernier, an initiation into the adult Unknown, so she wanted, needed, to join the Long Goodbye, to bid Jeter farewell in person. During one of the last homestands — in fact, the first day of her senior year — Bernier and a group of teammates finagled their way onto the field before the game.
There are usually 50 or so kids on the field an hour or two before the first pitch. The Yankees keep them in a corral, cordoned off by fat navy blue straps, and their anguish can be a gruesome sight. Imagine a petting zoo where the kids aren’t allowed to pet anything. Kept far away from the foci of their fascination, the kids make oohing and aahing noises and do not blink. The four long rows of Bernier’s lashes might not have touched once while Jeter took his cuts in the batting cage, and only when he was done, only when he was busy talking to teammates, was she able to divert her attention long enough to explain, or rather confess, that her nature isn’t really like Jeter’s. She wishes it were. Oh, Mister, how she wishes. Instead she tends to get nervous at Big Moments. Her coaches even tease her about it. They call her Derek Jitters. “She’ll be a hot mess,” says her mother, Suheil Fontanez, “and not be able to breathe.” But then she’ll think of Jete and find her center. “He’s really changed her life.”
In fact, Jeter may ultimately be the reason Bernier gets to go to college. Her best hope of getting into a good school, a Division I school, and receiving desperately needed financial aid, may be softball, so patterning herself after the Captain may yield benefits for years to come.
Finally, on his way to the dugout, Jeter stopped and signed every ball and scrap of paper thrust toward him by the kids. Bernier gently held her ticket aloft. Only once before had she gotten this close to Jeter, when she was 10, and she’d been so dumbstruck she couldn’t form words. Couldn’t move. She just stood there and Jeter stood there and then she burst into tears and he moved on. This time she held it together, got his signature, then fell backward into her girlfriends as if they were a mosh pit. It seemed the EMTs might need to be called. Days later, when the ticket was in its rightful place, at the foot of her bed, like the golden chalice on an altar, she told her mother, “That was the best day of my life.” Yes. Alexes will be watching.
As will Gay Talese. Forty-eight years ago the legendary journalist and author wrote a probing, lyric, classic portrait of Joe DiMaggio, who may be the closest spiritual link to Jeter in the Yankees pantheon. Both men are praised for their elegance, and both are often called “aloof.” (Jeter, who once met DiMaggio but was too intimidated to speak to him, à la Bernier, makes a habit before every home game of touching a sign painted with a DiMaggio quote: “I want to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee.”) Two years ago, while reporting a profile of Yankees manager Joe Girardi, Talese interviewed Jeter, sat with him in the dugout and observed the same distance, the same distrust he’d once observed in the Yankee Clipper. “It was like there was a glass case around him. He was like in a museum and there’s a glass case and someone is saying, ‘Keep your distance.'”
If Jeter harbors a deep distrust of sports writers, Talese says, who could blame him? “The most untrustworthy people in journalism are sports writers! I wouldn’t trust a sports writer — ever. You know what wrecks they are. Terrible! Exploitive!”
You can see that attitude best when you see Jeter in the locker room, his sanctum, which you can tell, from his body language, from his vibe, he’s not thrilled to share with these lumpy, notebook-toting buffoons in their acid-washed jeans and bad shoes. When you see the writers standing in a pack near Jeter, but not too near, pretending they’re not watching him, constantly cutting sidelong glances in his direction, like scavenger birds watching a feeding lion on the savanna, you get some idea of his life. Occasionally they drift over, ask for a minute, and almost always Jeter tells them, with unfailing politeness, ‘Not right now, I can’t, sorry, another time.’ Then you see him turn to his locker, turn his back to them, drop his pants, and his shorts, and you have to laugh, because, sure, it’s a locker room, the man has to get dressed, but no one else is doing this at the moment, and there does seem to be something pointed, something meaningful, something unmistakably clear about the one and only part of Jeter that he’s willing to reveal to sports writers.
Talese believes the two keys to Jeter — to his nature, his reserve, his success, everything — are his parents, Charles and Dorothy. They will probably be watching the last at-bat from a suite at Fenway, though it’s no sure thing. When Jeter made his official big league debut as the declared starting shortstop of the Yankees, in Cleveland, in April 1996, only his mother was on hand. His father was back home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, watching Jeter’s only sibling, younger sister Sharlee, play softball. It was typical of the Jeters’ parenting style, people say. Never putting one child above the other, never losing sight of what really matters.
Both Jeter’s mother and father were sergeants in the U.S. Army. (They met while stationed in Frankfurt.) Though they come from vastly different backgrounds — Dad, African-American, grew up in Montgomery, Alabama; Mom, Irish Catholic, grew up in suburban Jersey — they apparently saw eye-to-eye on the art of child-rearing. The Jeter household was run like a barracks, with many rules, strictly enforced. In fact, when Jeter was in grade school his parents made him sign a contract, pledging to do his chores and homework, to obey a strict curfew, to show respect to elders and peers and strive to be an all-around exemplary citizen.
At the same time Jeter was inking a long-term deal with his parents, he was making a lifelong pact with himself. He vowed to be a ballplayer. More, to be a Yankee. To this day he’s never said why. Maybe it was because he was born (June 26, 1974) just miles from the Stadium. Maybe it was because he spent summers with his grandparents in Jersey and his grandmother was a diehard fan. Maybe it was destiny. Whatever the reason, as a boy Jeter wore Yankees boxer shorts to bed, wore Yankees pinstripes around the house, nailed a Yankees uniform to his wall, told teachers, friends, anyone who would listen, that he hoped — no, intended — to play shortstop for the Bombers one day. Destiny, or audacity, it seems to have been in his blood.
Speaking of his blood. Henry Louis Gates Jr. will likely be watching the last at-bat. The eminent Harvard professor recently oversaw a chemical analysis of Jeter’s DNA, plus an extensive pruning of the Jeter family tree, as part of a segment on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots.” Gates says Jeter “identifies as an African-American,” but when they first met for the show Jeter knew very little of his racial makeup or family history. Like most Jeter fans, Jeter wanted to know more.
Gates obliged. He discovered that Jeter, on his father’s side, descends from Green Jeter, an Alabama slave, born May 1844. Upon being set free after the Civil War, Gates says, Green “thrived,” became a minister, founded his own church. “We wanted to find out who owned him,” Gates says, “and the most incredible thing, we found the will of an Alabama slave owner, James W. Jeter, a white man who died in 1861.” The will mentioned Green by name, and also his mother, Charity. “It’s very rare to find a former slave mentioned in an owner’s will,” Gates says. Then another telling clue popped up: The 1870 census lists Green as “mulatto.” “So if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck …” Gates says. In the end, Jeter’s DNA analysis removed all doubt. “James W. Jeter was Green’s father,” Gates says.
Thus Jeter descends not just from slaves but slave owners, a revelation that kicked open the door to other discoveries, including the identity of a distant Jeter who fought in the Revolutionary War. Further, a grandfather on Jeter’s mother’s side immigrated to America from Germany in the 1860s and opened a tavern where the Holland Tunnel now stands. In other words, for at least 150 years, New Yorkers have enjoyed guzzling beer while watching a Jeter kin.
It’s an irresistible temptation to say that some elemental quality in Jeter’s genes impelled him to become a New Yorker, a New York Yankee, a New York hero, a transcendent figure who floats above or synthesizes or denies America’s racial anxieties. No one ever calls him the second black captain of the New York Yankees, the first lone black captain. (Willie Randolph was co-captain.) But he is. If race seems to have played little role in his rise, it’s an illusion. For example, shortly after being drafted, after getting his first big bonus check, Jeter bought himself a flashy red Mitsubishi, which quickly attracted the attention of Kalamazoo’s yahoos. One day a group of thumb heads drove by and shouted: “Take that car back to your daddy, you n—–!”
It’s a memory that probably doesn’t recur during the Long Goodbye. Or else recurs constantly. No one knows, and the last person who’s likely to say is Jeter.
CHAD MOTTOLA will be watching the last at-bat.
In the 1992 baseball draft, Mottola, a power-hitting outfielder from Fort Lauderdale, was picked fifth by Cincinnati, even though the Reds’ Michigan scout begged the front office: Take Jeter. Mottola went on to have a dazzlingly short career, appearing in only 59 games, roughly 2,700 fewer than Jeter. Now the minor league hitting coordinator for Tampa Bay, Mottola says he’s endured 20 years of ribbing, not always good-natured. But last year, when he was with Toronto, he and Jeter had a moment. They shook hands, shared a laugh about how their fates are entwined. Mottola then sent two baseballs into the Yankees’ clubhouse, with a modest request. He wanted Jeter to sign them for his kids, 9 and 6. “I wanted him to write: Your dad was supposed to be better than me — haha.“
Somehow the baseballs got lost. Mottola never got them back. Oh well, he says. Another time.
The man who chose Mottola over Jeter will also be watching. “I probably will,” says Julian Mock, former scouting director of the Reds.
Mock vividly recalls the scout telling him that Jeter was the real deal, and Mock had no reason to doubt the scout. “But we already had a Hall of Famer at short — Barry Larkin!” So Mock chose Mottola and let Jeter slip to the shocked and jubilant Yankees. Now retired and living in Georgia, Mock doesn’t go back, late at night, when he can’t sleep, and replay his decision. Really. He doesn’t. “I’m glad I didn’t get him,” he says. “The way our system was? When he made all those errors the first two years in the minor leagues — he’d have been gone.”
It’s true. When Jeter first joined the Rookie League Gulf Coast Yankees, he was so error-prone that some within the organization started to have buyer’s remorse. Some talked about moving him to center field, and Jeter heard them talking. He panicked. He sank into a depression.
It was the darkest time of his life. Eighteen, homesick, having his first real taste of failure, he wept every night for months. Then things got worse. The following year, though his hitting improved, he committed 56 errors, a league record. There was growing concern within the Yankees, and some said openly that Jeter might be a bust, and so the team sent out an urgent distress call to Brian Butterfield, a well-respected fielding guru. Come fix this kid.
Butterfield hustled to Tampa and put Jeter through an intensive boot camp, 35 straight days of breaking him down, teaching him how to field a grounder.
What was Jeter doing wrong?
“You name it,” Butterfield says, laughing. “His feet didn’t have a purpose. His glove didn’t have a purpose.” While Butterfield was installing purpose in Jeter’s extremities, he noticed that the rest of Jeter was wholly purpose-driven. No matter how many grounders Jeter muffed, he went after the next one with confidence and determination. “He didn’t get down on himself,” Butterfield says. “He was the antithesis of me.”
Now a coach for Boston, Butterfield will have no choice but to watch Jeter’s last at-bat. He’ll be a ground ball away. And he expects the moment to be unbearably poignant. He predicts tears. “He has impacted my life far more than I ever could’ve done for him,” Butterfield says.
ONE JETER FAN who won’t be watching is R.D. Long, who played with Jeter in Tampa and Greensboro. Unlike Jeter, Long was no bonus baby. Drafted in the 38th round, he managed to eke out a few years in pro ball before giving up, right around the time Jeter was achieving superstardom.
Long recalls the exact moment he realized that his friend, with whom he’d shared bad motel rooms and greasy road food, had become a god. The Yankees were in Toronto, and Long was in nearby Rochester, and he swung by the ballpark to say hello. Standing shyly near the players’ exit, near the buses, Long suddenly saw them all come out. Pettitte, Clemens, Rivera, Posada, a row of giants, and then Jeter, who seemed to be leading them from behind, “with this jacket-coat that looked like the wind; a fan was blowing, his coat is flying behind him, like he’s some kind of superhero. It seemed so surreal that it was like — it looked slow motion, like the smoke with the wind blowing Michael Jackson’s shirt in that video? Like that.
“This was the boy king in the making, right in front of me. It happened that quickly.”
So why won’t Long be watching? “Certain things happened,” he says. “The A-Rod scenario … “
Long soured on the Yankees, he says, when the team acquired Rodriguez in a 2004 trade. Rodriguez was “all the talk — while idly by you’re ignoring one of the greatest ever — Jete.”
And yet … Alex Rodriguez will be watching.
From his office in Miami, where he’s serving a one-year banishment from baseball, Rodriguez says he’s watched nearly every game of Jeter’s Long Goodbye, and he’ll surely be watching the last at-bat, and probably feeling nostalgic about the early days of their friendship. He often finds himself thinking of those halcyon days when he and Jeter were two teenagers loaded with talent, the world at their cleats. In particular he thinks of the night they first met. Rodriguez was a high school senior, trying to decide between attending the University of Miami and going pro, and he sought advice from Jeter, who’d just chosen the Yankees over the University of Michigan. Through Jeter’s agent, they arranged to meet at a Miami-Michigan baseball game, and Jeter spent the entire game counseling Rodriguez. “We sat there for nine innings, talking shop,” Rodriguez says. “I’m very inquisitive, I asked everything under the moon — and what he told me that day, that night, had a huge influence.”
Another glowing memory comes right behind that one, a heady night not long after Rodriguez and Jeter had both broken into the majors. MTV flew them both, first-class, to Los Angeles, to film a TV show called “Rock N’ Jock.”
Rodriguez says they were beyond thrilled about flying first-class, and about the chance to see Hollywood. After filming ended, they went out on the town, and in the early-morning hours, in a cab back to their hotel, they talked unguardedly about the future. Both agreed that if they could just manage to stay in the game for a few years, long enough to earn “one million dollars,” that would be unthinkable. More than anyone could dare hope for.
When the cab pulled up to the hotel they discovered that they didn’t have enough to pay the fare. They pooled their crumpled bills and coins and came up with $17, Rodriguez recalls, which they handed, with profuse apologies, to the driver. Rodriguez laughs at the memory: their big dreams, their innocence.
Rodriguez and Jeter have had an up-and-down relationship through the years, he concedes. Friends, enemies, frenemies — but right now he says they’re in a good place. He’s beyond proud of his friend, he says, filled with unrestrained admiration. “Derek’s been a leader from day one. He’s been the head of his class in every way, both on the field and in terms of character. … That’s hard to do. Being undefeated for 20 years? In New York City? That’s remarkable.”
Via satellite, Rodriguez soaked up every bit of Derek Jeter Day, including Jeter’s moving, funny, “presidential” news conference afterward. “When you realize, an hour before the game, 50,000 people are in their seats, ready to go, excited, energetic. When you see Michael Jordan and Cal Ripken, two of the biggest icons of my lifetime — I thought it was a great day. I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”
Rodriguez thought about texting Jeter that day. But he held off, he says, because he didn’t want to be a distraction. “I’ve made it a point to stay in the penalty box.”
Some days later, he says: “I opted to reach out to Derek in a private moment.”
ABOVE ALL, Derek Jeter will not be watching the last at-bat of Derek Jeter. He won’t step outside himself, he won’t be thinking about any of this — the cosmic importance, the social relevance, the emotions, the history. Nothing.
Sitting in a bare office in the bowels of Tropicana Field, wearing jeans, a gray T-shirt and a red beaded necklace, Jeter says softly that he’ll reflect on the moment, briefly, before it comes, maybe, maybe. But in the moment, while it’s actually happening? No. “Probably be thinking, ‘Man, I need to get a hit right here.’ But I think that every time.”
Every game, before, during, after, he thinks the same things, does the same things, so he’s not about to change now, he says, just because it’s the end. He’ll approach the 11,000-somethingth at-bat just like the first. “I’m a creature of habit,” he says. “My biggest fear in life, in anything, is being unprepared. It throws me off. So I feel as though, when I do my routine, I’m prepared to play. When I don’t, it throws me off.”
That’s why, for instance, he’s used the same model of bat since he was 18. It’s the bat that comes closest in shape to the aluminum bat he used in high school. “I’ve never changed,” he says, beaming with pride. “I’ve used one bat my entire career — P72. I’m the only person I know that’s never changed. I’ve never had another at-bat with another one.”
Not even in batting practice? Not even when he’s slumping? “Its not the bat,” he says, laughing. “Some people blame the bat … ?”
He leaves open the possibility that he’ll be nervous for the last at-bat. “Everybody gets nervous,” he says. “It’s just how you hide it. How you deal with it.” But most likely he’ll sleep like a baby. He only has trouble sleeping “when we have a day game after a night game.”
If others are sad about the last at-bat, or about what comes after, he shows no signs of sharing their sadness. He sounds like someone looking forward to the next chapter, someone at peace with the timing of his decision. “I think you can play as long as you want, as long as you can work hard at it. I got to the point where this was my last year. I felt as though it was my last year. Not saying I don’t think I could play longer.”
“I mean — who knows if they’d want me to come back.”
He says he never consulted anyone about when to start the Long Goodbye — not his parents, not his closest friends, not fellow players he respects. He searched his own heart. “I listened to people speak about retirement, but I’ve never sought someone out and asked them why they did it, what made them do it, when they knew it was the right time.” And whenever he overheard someone saying, “Oh, you just know,” he’d think, “How do you know?”
Then one day he found out. You just know.
So … it’s like falling in love?
“Yeah,” he says.
He looks off, thinking, smiling, then bursts into a laugh. “Something like that.”
He allows that he’s not the only one retiring from baseball. His parents are too, and they’re as downhearted as anyone. “Both my parents are probably a little sad to see me go.” Baseball, he says, “gives them something to do, something to watch, something to cheer for.”
On the other hand, he believes they’re also feeling some relief. “Dad was the first one to tell me, ‘All along I’ve played every game with you.’ He’s a little tired too. On top of him playing, he reads all the papers and stuff I try to stay away from.”
As for his mother, she’s looking forward to his tackling another sport, a contact sport from which there is no retirement. Fatherhood. “My mom’s more ready for me to have a family. She doesn’t bring it up to me, very rarely, but I can follow the signs.”
He seems to find the idea appealing. Twice he references becoming a father, the second time when talking about the family history that Gates and his researchers uncovered. He looks forward to “sharing” his personal history “with my kids hopefully one day.”
Boston, he concedes, the site of some of his wildest triumphs and most painful defeats, is a strange place for his baseball life to end. A Boston reporter recently told him of Ted Williams’ historic final at-bat at Fenway — a home run. But that’s all the time he’s given over to thinking about baseball history or his place in it. Reflections on his career, comparisons between him and Williams or DiMaggio or Gehrig — he brushes it all aside, as always. “Ask me again in three weeks,” he says.
What’s been the biggest surprise of his career, the thing he wasn’t prepared for, the thing he’d tell a rookie coming up today? He thinks for several long moments. “How quickly it goes,” he says. “I’ve never taken it for granted, but it goes a lot quicker than you could imagine.”
Regrets? He’s had a few. He wishes he’d written things down. “Especially now, in this day and age, everyone captures everything on their phones, a picture, but you don’t really experience, because you’re so caught up in capturing. I experienced a lot of things, I don’t ever wish I could go back and capture them on film, but I wish I’d written them down. There’s minor details you forget.”
Thus, over the last few months, he’s formed a new habit. He keeps a journal. Which he’s never going to show to anyone.
Possibly he’ll use it one day to write a book, a memoir? “No no no no,” he says, “I would never. No no no — I can’t, no no no no.”
The notes, he says, “are just for me. So when I’m old and gray I can look back.”
Again and again people ask him what he’ll miss the most, and his answer never changes. The winning. There’s nothing like winning in New York. “I would go back and relive all the times we won, you know, because how my mind has always worked, after we won, right away, I’d say: ‘Let’s get ready, we have to do it again!’ I think I’d go back and enjoy it a little more.”
What will he miss least? “Every time I’ve struggled.”
Also, this. The talking, the questions. Writers probing his mind. “I’m not controversial,” he says. “Especially here in New York, they want you to say something controversial, and my job has been to limit distractions for my team — that’s my job, not to cause them.”
He hears the writers complain that he doesn’t give them anything. “Well, one, they ask me the same questions over and over, so I’m going to give you the same answers. But, two, I don’t like to talk about negative things. Because in my mind I have to get rid of it, and I don’t want to sit and dwell on it, and talk about it. Because then you start thinking about it, and then it poisons your mind. That’s how I deal with it.
“If there’s another way to deal with it — in New York — someone needs to tell me.”
A few more questions, a few more answers, and then he has to go. He stands. His whole manner changes. Not that he hasn’t been completely, charmingly, winningly friendly to this point, but suddenly his smile is different — wider, easier. Freer. And there’s a gleam in his eyes, because he gets to get on with his day, his life, the part he likes, being among his boys, being a ballplayer. He reaches out to shake, and it’s that hand, the one that for two decades has asked, Wait, please, wait, just a little more time. And then, in less time than it takes to turn two, he’s gone, and the little room under the Trop, which just seconds ago felt charged, electric, larger than life, feels inexplicably empty, and bitterly, bitterly cold.
IT COULD END ANYWHERE. But since every at-bat stands for the whole, why not end at the stadium, the final home game? Everyone saw what happened, but some probably think they were dreaming, and some were undoubtedly drunk, and the next generation won’t know, and the one after that simply won’t believe.
So. Always remember. The Yankees are leading 5-2 in the ninth, and in walks the closer, David Robertson, who has one job, to wrap it all up and get the party started. Instead Robertson secretly works for Hollywood, or Hallmark, or God, and he grooves a series of meatballs, and Baltimore’s Adam Jones and Steve Pearce, who also apparently moonlight for Spielberg, swat no-doubters over the left-field wall and tie the game and tee it up for you-know-who. Smash cut, bottom ninth. The Yankees put a man on, of course, and bunt him over, of course, and the crowd rises, of course, and for a moment the place feels like 1996, and 1951, and 1927. He strides to the plate and swings at the first pitch, naturally, and laces it the other way, no he didn’t, and the right fielder charges, are you watching this, and comes up throwing, is this really happening, and the runner slides, oh sweet lord, and if that umpire dares to say out he’ll never make it to his car …
He leaps for joy, and hugs his teammates, one by one, and then to a thunderous roar he walks slowly, alone, to the middle of the field and drops to a crouch and says a prayer and then turns and tips his cap and walks off. There’s joy on his face, and on the faces of the tens of thousands in the stands, but there’s a striking, haunting sadness in those limeade green eyes, because tomorrow, and tomorrow, you know? The petty pace, it’s already returning, and no amount of heroics, or winning, or love, since that’s what we’re really talking about here, love, can ever slow the coming of winter, or change the saddest, plainest fact of all: Youth doesn’t bother to say goodbye.
Additional reporting by Anna Katherine Clemmons and Martenzie Johnson.