In Derek Jeter's final days with the Yankees, moments in which he answered questions about whether he would become emotional or remain stoic when his memorable run at Yankee Stadium ended, Jeter offered a subtle reminder of how he has thrived and survived in New York for so long.
"I don't like to complicate things," Jeter said.
Call it a mandate or a rule, but Jeter lived by that simple sentence for his entire career, never letting any situation become too cumbersome and never letting anyone control what he did or what he said. When you are as talented and as confident as Jeter and you refuse to let any type of chaos engulf you, even the chaos that can exist in Yankeeland, you can march at your own pace. Jeter always marched at his own pace.
After the Yankees were eliminated from postseason contention on Wednesday, Jeter had a look of finality in his weary eyes and admitted it was getting "more and more difficult" to not think about the end. The Yankees will not play games in October for the second consecutive season, a season in which their lineup, including a punchless Jeter, stalled. With an offense that was even slightly more robust, the Yankees might have been able to snag a wild card berth. Instead, Jeter's last season was a lost season.
As reporters quizzed Jeter about his final game in the Bronx on Thursday, about the strong possibility that rain would delay it and about the likelihood of Jeter playing in the last three games in Boston this weekend, he shifted back and forth in front of his locker and uttered several "I don't knows." I stopped counting after the fifth "I don't know." Mentally, Jeter wasn't ready to go to all of those places so he didn't complicate things. He never does.
When the 40-year-old Jeter leaves the baseball stage, he will do so with close to 3,500 hits, with five World Series rings and with a generation of fans who will weep because they don't know life without him. These are the fans who wore No. 2 from the cradle until college, who chanted "De-rek Je-ter, De-rek Jeter" and who expected Jeter to be a baseball superman, even when, like this season, he couldn't be super, man.
"I just decided," Jeter said, "it was time for me to go."
At the end of any story, it's sensible to remember the beginning. Jeter's story of growing up as a Yankee fan in Kalamazoo, Michigan has been well-chronicled. Derek's parents, Charles and Dorothy, encouraged him and Sharlee, his sister, to chase their dreams, but those pursuits came with strict rules, daily lectures and lofty expectations. The contracts that Jeter signed with his parents were serious, written agreements that fostered responsible behavior and had almost nothing to do with athletics.
During a day I once spent with Jeter and his parents in Kalamazoo, Jeter described how his father always called him after a professional athlete had made news for negative reasons. It was a way for Jeter's father to remind him that one poor decision could stain everything he had worked so hard to achieve. Sometimes, Jeter would see a story about an athlete behaving badly and he would call his father, knowing that his phone was about to ring any way.
"I thank my parents by not embarrassing them," Jeter said. "I think that would be the worst thing I could do, if I embarrassed them and did something stupid. If I mess up, obviously, it's going to be on TV. I show my respect for them by not messing up."
Jeter made those comments about showing respect for his parents 14 years ago when he was already a Major League player, but he could have made them when he was still a high school player. I've interviewed several of Jeter's relatives and friends and, universally, they said Jeter was acting like a big leaguer long before he was actually a big leaguer. The Jeter we saw across the last two decades was basically the same Jeter they saw in Kalamazoo, the kid who predicted in an elementary school yearbook that he would play for the Yankees and then took a few hundred swings in his garage every winter day to work to make that happen.
So, as Frank Sinatra sang, and now the end is near. Jeter, who proudly said he “always wanted to be up with the game on the line” because he believed he would get a hit, will now be playing in games that have no post-season significance. When Jeter plays on Thursday, it will only be the second game in his career in which the Yankees didn’t still have at least chance to get into the playoffs. The fans will still treat Jeter like royalty in the Bronx, a celebration designed to say thank you. But it won’t be the team celebration Jeter had hoped to have in his final season.
You can twist Jeter's statistics in various directions to incite a debate, but it's impossible to argue against his status as one of the greatest shortstops in history. That's enough, isn't it? Isn't calling Jeter one of the greatest shortstops ever a perfect and fair way to describe him as he retires? Of course, it is. There's nothing complicated about that.