To make it clear from the start, I'm with you: In American sport, Derek Jeter is the gold standard of the millennium. No arguments there.
Start with the on-field actions: His no-look, behind-the back flip in the 2001 playoffs to nail The Other Giambi, wherein he happened to be backing up the first base cut-off man, was clearly too absurd to be real. And watching his warp-speed dive into the stands against the Sawx in '04, wherein he only absorbed a few facial cuts but could have easily broken his neck, was like watching someone throwing himself in front of a truck for The Game of Baseball. Maybe the most bewildering one of all? His "my-ankle-just-shattered-but-I'll-still-flip-the-ball-to-Cano-to try-and-keep-the-play-alive" movie against Detroit in the 2012 ALCS opener. Here's an athlete so instinctively bound to his sport that while his body was shouting out, "Dude! Your ankle just exploded!" his brain was more concerned with preventing a Tiger from scoring from second.
The numbers are great, the clutch moments nearly infinite, the self-effacement authentic. I wrote a long GQ cover profile of Jeter back in the day, and each subsequent interview for the piece reinforced the inescapable truth: The guy is infuriatingly well-adjusted. And while I'm not quite in the camp of the columnist who wrote yesterday, "... it could be argued that Jeter is the greatest player who ever lived," because, no, it can't, I definitely think that no player in our lifetime has ever been more respected by fan and player alike. (Sorry, Baltimore; yes, Cal was the coolest, but Derek ruled.)
So if anyone deserves a mulligan for a misstep, it's our man -- and I think today he needs one. Because in most uncharacteristic fashion on Wednesday, Jeter -- possibly inadvertently -- made himself bigger than the game. By announcing his retirement before the season, instead of after it or toward its end, he has ensured that we'll get our second consecutive Farewell Tour in two years.
The Mariano Rivera retirement fanfare should have been a one-off. It had a spontaneous feel to it -- a heartfelt tribute from his peers who wanted to let him know how amazing they thought he'd been. Whereas this year's Derekfest planning has already begun, as writers anticipate his final summer-long lap around the league. Bad enough that the whole thing evokes this creepy feeling that the phenomenon might become a ritual: The annual Diet Pepsi/Doritos Farewell Tour. But worse for MLB is that our celeb is yet another Bronx Bomber. As if the Yankees don't take enough (justified) grief as a franchise for anointing themselves as the modern athletic equivalent of the Roman Empire, wherein the conquering general comes home and circles the city a few dozen times while women faint and men bow at his carriage laden with the conquered land's jewels. Can't Jeter see how this final prance is going to add more fuel to the fire of everyone from St. Louis (see "Smith, Ozzie") to Baltimore (see above) who thinks he's been overly deified because of his Yankee pedigree?
"But he's doing it for the fans," you might say. But he's already taken care of that -- and his nod to you, the fan, was the most heartfelt part of his letter. The Derek Jeter with whom I'm acquainted wouldn't presume that a premature announcement was a gift to the fans. The Jeter I've observed for all these years would have announced, on the day after his final playoff game, that he was going to retire -- and then we'd next hear from him in Cooperstown. That's what I always thought the Hall of Fame speech was for: to thank the fans for their love of the game.
Am I being entirely cynical if I allow myself to think that the idea of this announcement's timing might have originated in the brain of someone who thought it might be good for Major League Baseball's profile if it could put on a six-month Jeter Tour? To boost attendance in towns like Houston? To boost league revenues? (A tad conspiracy-theorist? Sure, but even paranoid people are being followed sometimes.)
In any case, Jeter has agreed to become the latest king in what may soon seem to be an endless coronation. I, for one -- and yeah, OK, maybe I'm the only one -- hope the tour's central feature will be the captain insisting, as best he can, in every town, that the whole pomp-and-circumstance thing never be allowed to get in the way of the game.
And that before the season begins, he writes another note that says, "Please: no gifts. You've gifted me enough. As I hope I've gifted you."