Growing old in baseball means growing up and that is never easy. Just ask Derek Jeter, the greatest Yankee of our time. In a press conference this afternoon, Jeter said he was angry with the free agency process and how negotiations have been portrayed. He didn’t like hearing the words “greedy,” “ego,” and “arrogance,” associated with his name, the brand he’s worked so hard to cultivate.
Jeter is so much more than a player. He’s a great star, a great New York star. “He’s a bi-racial angel”–the best line in Will Ferrell’s latest movie, featuring a cameo by Jeter. From his rookie season, it was clear that Jeter was mature and poised. He was the kind of kid grown-ups liked, the good son, team player, head down, plays hurt gamer. He learned from Darryl Strawberry and Reggie Jackson and maintained control over his image, with only a few minor bumps, in his brilliant 16 year year career. Jeter doesn’t want to talk bout the end even if it is on everyone else’s mind. But he finally got into a situation that he could not control and it pissed him off.
I don’t blame him for being mad. If I’d worked so hard to do everything right, been so careful, so deliberate, I wouldn’t like the loss of control either. This is a hard lesson that Jeter will unfortunately have to learn, at least partially, in the public eye, whether he likes it or not. Beneath his cool exterior, longtime Yankee followers know that Jeter has a lot of heat in him–remember Ken Huckaby?–but he rarely shows that side to us like he did today. He didn’t lose his temper but he looked vulnerable, like a sheltered kid. I enjoyed it, like I enjoy almost everything about watching Derek Jeter on and off the field. Watch enough post-game interviews and you can see that Jeter has a sharp sense of humor; his eyes are always alert. I hope he’s so pissed that he hits .300 next year.
It doesn’t end well for most ball players, no matter how great. Joe Namath was long gone from New York when he retired; Clyde Frazier petered out in Cleveland, Patrick Ewing was dismissed to Seattle. Jeter will surely have a more satisfying end, but who knows what the next few years hold in store? Does he pass 3,500 hits or start to break down and turn into Don Mattingly?
I was talking to the writer and old jock Pat Jordan not long ago. He’s 70 and still works as a freelance magazine writer. He has to work, has to keep pushing himself. “Alex, old age is God’s final test for us,” he said. “How we handle ourselves now, how we deal with loss and pain, with growing old, is the final test of our character of who we are. That’s all there is, it’s beyond money and ego.” Pat was excited. The jock in him loves the challenge.
Derek Jeter is only at the end of his career but loves a challenge too. It will be fascinating to see how this story ends. Will he be like so many others? Will he turn into Brett Favre? How do you finish the perfect career on a high note?
“I’m afraid of life after baseball,” Dennis Eckersley once said. “Petrified. I’m not ashamed of saying it. I’ll be all right, but nothing will ever compare with this…maybe I’ll grow up after I get out of this fuckin’ game.”