For once, Jeter can savor his moment
February, 13, 2014
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com
NEW YORK -- Derek Jeter is ready for his victory lap.
That’s really the only way you can explain his most un-Jeterian decision to let the world know about something momentous he plans to do months before he plans on doing it.
We won’t know for sure why Jeter chose to announce -- on his Facebook page, no less -- that he will be retiring at the end of the 2014 season, his 20th in the big leagues and every one of them with the Yankees, until he holds a news conference sometime next week, possibly on Wednesday, when the Yankees' position players are due to report for spring training.
Surely this most private of professional athletes had to realize that making that kind of an announcement in February for something that won’t happen until September at the earliest ensures at least seven months of nightly crowds around his locker, whether the Yankees are playing in the Bronx or Kansas City or Houston.
In fact, the media hordes will be especially huge when the Yankees are playing somewhere like Kansas City or Houston.
Now, the word is out: This will be the last time Derek Jeter passes through these parts. Better get him, or forget him.
Judging by the first 19 seasons of his career, that sounds like Jeter’s worst nightmare.
And for those first 19 seasons, it would have been.
But now, it is guaranteed that No. 20 will be a special season for No. 2.
Because for the first time in a Cooperstown-bound career, I get the sense that Jeter is going to be playing baseball for the sheer enjoyment of it. And that should be fun for all of us.
He gave us all a glimpse of that on Thursday, when he stopped his car on the way out of the Yankees' spring training complex to sign dozens of autographs, and then lingered long enough for the small horde of reporters camped outside to fight their way to his open window.
He really didn’t have much to say -- he promised he would address the issue next week -- but he just seemed to want to say hi and make a little small talk with people he generally goes out of his way to avoid.
It was as if he suddenly realized that he wouldn’t be doing this much longer, and might actually miss it.
Make no mistake, Jeter has always loved baseball, but with the kind of love that is borne of intensity more than pleasure. I have been present through every one of his 19 seasons, in some media capacity or other, and he has always struck me as the kind of player who didn’t only live to play, but played to live.
He was the one guy in the Yankees' clubhouse who, during a rain delay, would be staring into a Doppler weather map on his laptop, seemingly trying to will the clouds away. He would ask anyone who came by -- teammates, reporters, coaches -- “You think we’ll play tonight?" He never wanted a night off.
And yet, even when he was on the cusp of a great achievement -- a batting title, another World Series ring, his pursuit of 3,000 hits -- he refused to take anything for granted, to look ahead, or worse, to look back.
He deflected all questions regarding records, personal achievements, or of someday being elected to the Hall of Fame.
“I’m not even thinking about that," he would say.
Those kinds of things, he would say, distracted a player or a team from its goal. As he neared the 3,000-hit mark, he would allow, reluctantly, that it might be something he would reflect upon and celebrate after his career was over. But for now, it was just another hit on the way to what he hoped would be another World Series championship.
His motto seemed to be, “Stay in the moment."
But now, it seems as if Jeter has decided to allow himself to savor a moment while he’s still in it. By announcing his retirement months in advance, he gets to soak up what his friend and teammate Mariano Rivera soaked up all last season -– a nationwide farewell party for a career well-played.
Who knows, maybe he really needs a new rocking chair, some fishing rods and a surfboard?
Of course he doesn’t, but everyone needs the kind of appreciation Jeter will get all around the league this season. Even in Fenway Park, where the Yankees close out the regular season on Sept. 28, Jeter will hear the cheers, although considering the nature of the Red Sox's “video tribute" to Mo last season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a collection of Jeter strikeouts in the highlight reel.
Still, this will be a rare opportunity for a special athlete to enjoy a special sendoff. Rivera set the precedent and Jeter, wisely, is using it to his advantage, whether that was his intention or not.
Now, he is practically assured that the pre- and postgame questioning will be celebratory, not accusatory. And even if he suffers through a subpar stretch, or even a down season, there won’t be any point in asking him if he thinks he is through, because he’s already provided the answer in advance.
At first glance, Jeter’s decision to announce his future retirement before spring training even began seemed curious, and perhaps a little ill-advised.
But upon further review, it might turn out to be one of the wisest things Derek Jeter has ever done.