Half his life, he stood in the middle of it.
Call him charmed or lucky or raised right, which is just another form of luck, the best kind of luck maybe, but this Derek Jeter from Kalamazoo and before that Jersey – what he did best was stand in the middle of it, on the field, amid the New York Yankees, in New York City, for the game.
For two decades, and he'll be 40 in June, Jeter was the conscience of a franchise that many times could use one. He was an unchallenged captain when the popular regard for such rank was otherwise stuffy, old, forced.
There's something to the notion that New York made the man, or certainly the rep of the man, but the man also made the city and its iconic franchise, a symbiosis that evolves and survives when the man is willing to stand in the middle of it for long enough.
Jeter, of the five championships, of an era Yankees fans might have thought would never come again, of crooked smiles and inside-out swings and fanciful jump throws and the latest starlet on his arm, announced Wednesday he would retire at the end of the 2014 season. And so in short time the Yankees will have said farewell to Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada and now their Jeter. He'll add to his 3,316 hits, the 2,544 games at shortstop, maybe the 13 All-Star Games, maybe even the 200 postseason hits.
Then he will be done with his time in the middle of it. His body is fragile. He began to suffer for it. He was forever young until he wasn't, the familiar human condition hastened by more than his share of a hard and relentless game. He watched his friends go off to the rest of their lives, and then it was time to give his notice, too. One more long roll call. One more lingering at-bat, hunting right-center field. One more batting helmet raised to the crowd by its left ear hole, the way he always has.
"I could not be more sure," he wrote. "I know it in my heart. The 2014 season will be my last year playing professional baseball."
He will retire not as the greatest Yankee. Others hit more home runs. Others had surer gloves. Others hit for higher averages and won more championships. But, you know, he came close enough. He was great enough.
Jeter's talent was – is – in its elegance. Its dignity. Like Rivera before him, the beauty was in the simplicity. They showed up, they played well, they competed, and then they did it again the next day. Until they couldn't anymore. Jeter played 17 games last season. Maybe he'll be healthy again come April, maybe he won't, but this will be the last April.
Of 2013, Jeter wrote, "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."
He'd grown up wanting to be what he became, and that in itself is what you need to know about Derek Jeter, how incredibly rare that is, that and the fact he seemed to chase that same ideal to the end, long past his prime. Two years ago, at 38, he batted .316. He played in 159 games, then six more in October, before leaving part of his ankle on the Yankee Stadium infield. That has led inevitably to this, the announcement that somebody else will have to do that job, and somebody else will have to stand in the middle of it all. It will be their burden, maybe their joy, but probably not. Whatever comes, it no longer will be his.
He stayed as long as he could. He gave as much as he could. He won as often as he could.
"It started as an empty canvas more than 20 years ago," Jeter wrote, "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."
So the transition begins.
Commissioner Bud Selig called him, "The kind of person that generations have emulated proudly."
Union chief Tony Clark said, "Derek has set the standard that we would all strive to achieve."
More love will come. Lots more. Thirty-year-olds at Yankee Stadium probably have no memory of anyone but Jeter as their everyday shortstop, and so the city will celebrate him as a man it helped raise. Special like that. Close like that.
In that way, he was charmed. Lucky. He got to stand in the middle of it.
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