Derek Jeter had THE moment. The one that nips at every player's heels like a seven-pound dog as you age in the game. Then suddenly it jumps on your back and you realize it's a 125-pound beast that hasn't been fed in a long time. The visionary Jeter anticipated his ending and gave way to the practical understanding that despite all his competitive drive, he could do nothing to stop the ending. So he accepted it and worked proactively.
A player's career is a series of moments and snapshots of turning points that define his path. It takes consistent excellence and faith to be able to make every fork in the road irrelevant, so that you know your destiny will guide you and that, whichever turn you take, you will end up exactly where you had dreamed of ending up. In his letter to fans he states: "[F]or some reason, I've never had to wake up. Not just because of my time as a New York Yankee but also because I am living my dream every single day." Jeter is appreciative and was always ahead of the curve, but the game will eventually force you to make a choice -- and that choice is only as good as what you do after you make it.
As a player reflects on how this moment arrives, he thinks back in time. He plays a film in his head of what led to how quickly he found himself on the final stretch. He grasps at milestones from first hits to playoff victories to no-hitters , while framing tidbits of wisdom that a veteran told him, maybe even fighting back tears thinking about how the word "can't" is no longer kept at bay by sheer will.
Jeter is tired -- and he should be. He rarely had a full offseason, the price of perpetually being in the postseason. He played in Octobers and Novembers, when most players were at home. He carried one of the most storied and high-expectation-filled organizations in sports on his back both on and off the field. His seasons were 175-plus games, rarely 162. An extra month of baseball year in and year out over 20 years is like playing for another few years. He is 40 going on 44.
It is the work of age that brings into focus the downside of playing a game from our childhood. Most players have played since they could walk. So Jeter is not just wrapping up a 20-year major league career but a lifetime of playing a game he loves, from Little League to summer ball to high school, and beyond. And the idea of not being able to play it any longer can be horrifying.
He had set parameters to measure when he would be ready to retire by saying in his letter, "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 knew he had the luxury of defining the endpoint of a life's work the moment it felt like work. The game loses its majesty when it starts to feel as if you are clocking in and out without passion. You grind, you play through pain only to do it all over again, and all the while you sense that your best is no longer acceptable.
Part of his gift of instinct allowed him to know when the dream had changed to a job. So he got ahead of this transition as he did versus any pitcher who tried to get him out. Anticipation keeps the shock at bay once you realize that you spend more time preparing for the game than playing it -- that the time it takes to stretch, ice, warm up and get treatment add up to hours before you even pick up a bat before a game. You have to stretch to practice, you have to warm up to warm up, and even after that, something is physically bothering you when you play full speed.
When I spoke to Ryan Howard before Opening Day last year, I asked him, "After recovering from your injury, when do you start getting ready for a game like today?" He responded with a smile, "The night before."
Time and health can be cruel in baseball. When you have high standards of excellence, you have high standards for what you will gain from it or give to it. The feedback matters, the sensation matters, the reciprocation matters, and when you are not getting back what you seek or expect, you begin to drift and look at the clock.
It is not that the fans' enthusiasm for Jeter has waned. The millions upon millions of fans who cheer him on have no choice now but to stand behind his new vision for his future. He is fighting for self in a world that absorbs you whole, and the only way out is to fight and make a declaration. Otherwise, Father Time will just let you erode without sympathy.
"Now it is time for a new chapter," Jeter wrote. "I have new dreams and new aspirations, and I want new challenges." He mentions family, philanthropy and just doing the simple things like enjoying a "summer vacation." It is hard to imagine that time has shifted so much that a fixture who had 200-plus hits just two years ago has reached such inevitability, but it is a change that you must beat to the punch, or it will punch you in the back of your head. If you don't throw the first punch, you will be in denial, you will find shortcuts, or you will ensure that your exit will blocked by barbed wire.
Jeter has performed consistently with such grace that it matters not just to him but to the game how he can move on to new horizons. He saw Mariano Rivera and countless other legacy Yankees move on to new arenas. Every day in the Yankees' camp he is surrounded by history and the power of transition -- from Reggie Jackson to Yogi Berra to Ron Guidry.
Jeter was trained to know the next move of his opponent. The quintessential shortstop needs a quick first step to make a move well before the pitcher even lifts his leg. But time is not so predictable; it has no pattern, no hanging curveball for which to wait. So his letter is the first step of many as Jeter tries to write his own script, craft the best of possible endings. It may not go the way of his dreams, but if there is one player who may be able to fight the inevitability of reality, it is Jeter.