As end nears, Derek Jeter handles role of aging star with grace

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Derek Jeter is batting .250 in 2014 and .220 since the start of 2013, a season he played one-tenth of because he was hurt, and he's chosen to play one more season, this one, and you wonder if he's considered the children.

There's an entire generation of baseball fans that knows nothing of calendar-driven decay, and had no need to know. Its heroes never were sick, didn't get any older and wouldn't ever die. This was heaven, if heaven were a strip mall storefront and the people inside were chemistry majors. Or had friends who were chemistry majors. Along comes the royal Jeter, at almost 40, going on 20 years in this business, something like 25,000 innings behind him, and, contrary to much of what we learned over the past couple decades, the years and the miles do tend to show.

Maybe, as he insisted, he just had an off couple weeks, and his bat speed and defensive range are coming, and he'll be the player he's been since he showed up, born to the game.

The alternative seems more likely, much as he fights the physical end of it, just as we resist the notion that Derek Jeter has five or six months of baseball left, if that.

In the end, sad but true, the body does not grow stronger or more pliable. It does not recover well. Or, in some cases, recover miraculously. What it does become is more brittle, and less reliable. And in that case, heaven is a place where paunchy guys, pleased with the choices they made, spend a lot of time talking about yesterday.

So this is what it looks like. This is how it plays out.

Can he play shortstop? Should he be batting second? Can he play again tomorrow? The next day? When does the slump – the results – become who he is?

"When you're older, that stuff does come up," Joe Girardi, manager of the New York Yankees, said. "When you're 39…"

It's normal. It's natural.

"Yeah," Jeter said Monday afternoon, "because when I was in spring training, I got a lot of the 'old' questions."

Then, three weeks into April, when he was hitting almost .300, gee, he looked so young.

"Now I'm old again," he said. "So I guess it fluctuates."

He side-eyed the question and grinned. To everyone else, he'll only be as old as his batting average. To him, living it, he'll show up early, take his early swings, twirl the bat in the clubhouse so the handle squeaks in his new batting gloves, and then see what the game holds. Just as he's never been three weeks of batting .298, neither is he two weeks of .154.

"I'll always look at the big picture," he said. "This is not the first time I've struggled over four or five games."

It's early. It's late. In between, Jeter plays it out, and shoots for wins, and hopes to be standing in the right place at the right time.

He's declared the end, so how short a leap to think it could come a few months earlier than he suspected. Or, perhaps, that he may have underestimated the unknowable, that being the very moment a career becomes unsustainable. Doesn't matter.

There is no shame in becoming a little slower afoot, or in starting a little sooner on the fastball. Even then, he can be entirely capable and occasionally brilliant. He lined a single to center field in the third inning Monday night, and four innings later pulled a three-hopper past third base for a double. In the eighth inning, with the bases loaded and one out and Angel Stadium about to come apart (they do seem to love their Yankees here), he scorched a ball to second base that became a double play. He was sturdy at shortstop. The game was familiar.

Yeah, he's up against his age, and the layoff, and the grind. The life that waits, the one where he returns to the real world and is young again, is out there. He's only old here, in this uniform, in this era.

His final lesson, then, is to leave with the same grace with which he arrived, and by the same clock normal folks live by. So much of that stuff that came just before him, that happened all around him, that wasn't real. Stars grow old and they fade away before we want them to, and they spend a year or two surviving before they know for certain what is gone today is gone forever.

In a strange ballpark, Jeter was cheered when the lineups were read, and he stirred a standing ovation when he came to the plate, and again when his single in the third broke an 0-for-14 stretch. If this is supposed to be all that routine for him, those are the moments that won't let it be. He barely knows these people and yet they called his name. His next swing could beat them and yet they sort of hope it does.

"You know what?" he said. "That was probably one of the coolest things to happen in my career. That was unexpected. And much appreciated."

To most, whether they wear the Yankees colors or not, he played it right. He came in the right way. He'll leave the right way. You could barely believe what he was at 20. But this, this is what 39, going on 40, looks like. What it's supposed to look like.