MINNEAPOLIS – An overconfident young man held a professional microphone to Derek Jeter’s mouth Monday afternoon. With his other hand he presented Jeter with one of those fancy candles that comes in a jar and smells like butterscotch or jasmine or something, a going-away gift delivered with a snarky grin and a question about showering with other men. The mic flag carried the letters of CBS, indeed a proud moment for Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid. And now, kid with a boutique candle.
Jeter was kind enough in the moment to accept the gift and ignore the clumsy stab at humor, both with grace. And smart enough to depart some 40 minutes later without the dumb candle.
He’d arrived in a suit of slate blues and a pinkish-orangey tie, the colors of a sunset, his own. He turned 40 a couple weeks ago. Forty’s not so bad anymore. On a ball field, it’s still 40. He’s a .272 hitter, and makes it look all right. The New York Yankees – his Yankees – are a .500 team, not so poor to dismiss, not so capable to think they’ve underachieved. For the moment, they fit again.
Jeter is here for his 14th and final All-Star Game. He arrived at about 5 a.m. Monday for it, actually, from Baltimore. “I feel tired,” he admitted, which explained the shadows beneath his eyes, more sunset.
There seems a gentle symmetry in his farewell. He’s not what he was and neither are the Yankees. The men he grew up with and won with are gone. The championships are rare. The Yankees aren’t a machine as much as they are a collection of parts that sometimes fit for a week or two. Jeter leads them as relentlessly as ever, with the same deference to the game and its constants of showing up and putting in a day’s work, the same deference to the game and its broken-bat hits and hanging sliders and bad hops and silly misfortunes.
He wouldn’t rue any of them, because they made the ride. Maybe ’04. That wasn’t so great. And ’01 stung a little. But still …
Now he goes from town to town and the people who disliked him, mostly for the uniform he wore, praise him and give him gifts. Jeter himself isn’t sure what to make of the attention, the good-byes in a season that isn’t close to over, but he receives their paddle boards and electric guitars and even their gag candles with humility, and it’s nice when other players tell him it’s been an honor and a privilege. That’s what he remembers.
“All of it,” he said. “Whether it’s things that players tell you, things that fans tell you, opposing coaches, managers. There’s been a lot of kind things that have been said to me. There’ve been plenty of moments where I’ve stepped back and said, ‘Wow, that was cool.’”
There’ve been a solid 20 years of that, actually. Maybe there’s never been a ballplayer who’s done a generation of cool quite like Jeter. So there’s no surprise he’s going to run it out to the end, show up in his slate blues Monday, lead off for the American Leaguers on Tuesday, log a few innings at shortstop and spin this town – this sport -- on his finger for a few more hours. After that, there’s one last season to finish, followed by a good long vacation, and then who knows. He’ll buy into a team, perhaps. Continue his business relationships. Take the Magic Johnson model to New York City, make it his own.
That’s all for another day. There’s no sense rushing what’s left. There’s another at-bat out there.
“I’ll probably savor it for a minute then try to get a hit,” he said. “It’s difficult to answer questions about what I’m going to do tomorrow because I haven’t gotten there yet.”
It’s simple like that. It worked in 1995, when he was swinging for a job. It works in 2014, with all those swings having piled up and become something special. For so long, they were a product of how he did it. Now, in his sunset, he is a product of them, of all the good decisions, of all the refusals to give in. He has remained squarely present in the best times, and way above the difficult ones. He’d always be back the next day, the next season, the next time they needed him. What happens when he’s not? What then?
Jeter shook his head. He can’t get there.
“It’s been difficult because my career’s not over yet,” he said. “I’ve still got games to play. It’s tough to reflect on a career when you’re still in it, you know what I mean?”
Take today, for one. Take an exhibition game dressed as something else, all surrounded by pomp and silliness, a game that will be remembered in part by how he arrived at it and how he will leave it, but almost surely not for the final score. An event that started with some mope handing him a candle. Take today and what that means to Derek Jeter, at sunset.
“I’ve come here to play a game,” he said.
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