Derek Jeter and the greatest trick 'The Captain' ever pulled

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

The beginning of the end starts tonight, only Derek Jeter doesn't see it that way. One of his greatest qualities, maybe the greatest in allowing him to not only navigate the morass of celebrity in New York but emerge as its unequivocal champion, is that myopia. He doesn't see this as the beginning of the end because his eyes never deviate from the point on which they fixate.

In the short term, that is his next plate appearance, and in the long term, that is his next World Series ring, and if that is too simplistic a notion, that his tunnel vision abates for nothing, allow the last 20 years to function as evidence affirming as much. His farewell tour is going to skimp on the farewell and look nothing like a tour. He's about as sentimental as a lamppost. Why that is Jeter never will say. Trying to understand him necessitates guesswork, because as much as we know of Derek Jeter, we still don't know much about Derek Jeter.

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Every now and again, he offers a glimpse. More than a decade ago, a journeyman outfielder named Charles Gipson joined the New York Yankees for about a two-month stretch. Most days, Jeter joined him for lunch. And this wasn't about a star taking another player under his wing or any sort of prodigy-protégé thing. Gipson was a normal dude, and Jeter, a kid from Michigan, craved even a sliver of the normalcy he long ago left behind and nevertheless tries to maintain.

The greatest trick 'The Captain' ever pulled was convincing the world not to warp him. More than the 3,316 hits, 13 All-Star appearances, five World Series rings and countless A-list women whom he graced with his presence later, this ethos, more than any, guides and defines Jeter: Never did he allow the persona to grow greater than the person. Whereas most in his position would have fertilized their brand, Jeter maintained his with the sort of straightforward monotony that satisfied those who love him and gave those who didn't no reason to dislike him.

He exists as the perfectly programmed modern athlete, one with an image beyond pristine because he never did anything to sully it. Think about that: Jeter has lived in New York for 20 years and never once found himself in the crosshairs of tabloids or ex-girlfriends or waitresses who got stiffed on a tip or cabbies who saw him drunk or George Steinbrenner back when he played The Boss with comical overzealousness. There is always the possibility that Jeter employs Winston Wolfe full time; likelier is that he really is this good, this focused on traversing the travails of stardom and carving out that small place in which he can act like a real person who wants to work hard and perfect a craft.

Jeter, 40 in June, is for all intents and purposes relearning baseball after a lost 2013 in which the ankle he broke during the 2012 postseason gave him fits and limited him to 17 games. In that short spell, he looked bad, and this spring, scouts and team officials saw a player who couldn't move well enough to play an effective shortstop and could suffer at the plate because all the infield hits he once legged out may turn into outs on account of his speed going MIA.

He knows the doubts exist because Jeter himself wondered whether he could do this. His case mirrors Mariano Rivera's. Thoughts of retirement bounced around. A catastrophic injury hit. And a sport in which every challenge had been met presented a new one, a final bout with adversity during a career in which his record with it was undefeated.

"I'm looking forward to playing," Jeter said. "I missed the whole year pretty much. So I'm looking forward to this season. It's kind of hard for me to say what it's going to be like since I haven't gotten there yet. But I am excited for it."

It's not going to be like Rivera's, certainly. He didn't just soak in his final season. He bathed in it, splashed around, bottled it in a Super Soaker and sprayed everyone to share it. It was like a Lifetime movie come to life. Rivera wanted to slice his retirement into a million pieces and let everyone have a taste.

Never would Jeter do the same. Publicly, he offers no sentimentality – "I haven't even started yet," he said, "so how can I be thinking about the end?" – because not only does he value his privacy, it goes against everything he has worked so long to build. He stretched his reality into an impermeable façade.

"You don't really expect that out of Jeet," said CC Sabathia, who will start for the Yankees Tuesday night in Houston. "He just goes about his business every day. It's a normal spring for him."

The Yankees are trying to keep it as normal as possible, too, not going through the drama of a position change even if his physical state warrants one, not forcing him to stomach a documentary crew or make more public appearances or in any way acknowledge that indeed this is the end.

And it is. Jeter will not walk back on his word. The last of the Yankees' Core Four will vanish from their clubhouse in 162 games, and not only will it signal the end of an era, it will leave a sort of emptiness in the sport. It always moves on, sure, as do all entities with fungible pieces, and Jeter is, for all of his greatness, just that: a guy, not a god, and never to be duplicated but sure to be replaced.

"We thought it would be weird without Mo, but life goes on," Sabathia said. "You have to move on and keep going. It's part of the game."

That part begins tonight, the long countdown over the next six months. Perhaps between now and then, pangs of schmaltziness will overcome Jeter and he will have his Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth moment. Probably not, though. It plays against character, one forged over two decades and honed with experiences that affirm it.

The closest Jeter came in spring training to acknowledging the impending season was when he said: "I don't have a chance to do this again." Which wasn't deep or rich with meaning. It was a trope, like pretty much everything Jeter says, there to misdirect any further questions about him or his feelings. It suggested at some point Jeter may even look back, though by now we know better. It's all forward, all the time, his eyes never deviating, the points fixated, The Captain eternal in his belief that he did it the right way and will do it the same until the end.

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