"His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly's wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless."
-- Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
TAMPA, Fla. -- He has always been fascinated with stories, the beginning, middle and end of lives, even though he has been the protagonist of some of the greatest sports stories ever told. But that phase is ending. His body is failing, and he knows it, so he's stepping aside to let others take his place in these tales.
Derek Jeter may still be the most famous character on the New York Yankees, the lead actor, but he's no longer the most talented one. He's the aged captain, the old man and the "C," the 39-year-old fading superstar. Now, after establishing his own publishing company, which he says he'll actively run after his retirement, Jeter is thinking about how he will tell other people's stories. But there's still at least one final act left in his baseball saga.
For Jeter's story to end unlike so many other retirements -- a crawl toward a sputtering finale -- he will need a truly spectacular comeback from an ankle injury that killed his 2013 season, at a time when his skills have diminished and his desire has waned. He still wants to win, he still wants to compete, but when you see the end, you realize there is life after baseball.
During Mariano Rivera's celebrated farewell tour, and then the subsequent adulation for Andy Pettitte after he announced his retirement, Jeter began to ask questions about his own baseball mortality.
"I just felt he was just a little more emotional in a sense -- not that he was crying or anything like that -- as we went through that last month," Pettitte said. "I just noticed a little difference in him in that last month of the season. He would talk about [retirement] all the time last year, just kind of jokingly in a sense, and I took it as a joke. Obviously he was even more serious than I thought."
Jeter has it all mapped out, as you would expect him to. Last fall, he announced he would partner with Simon & Schuster to create a publishing company with an emphasis on non-fiction stories. He's already dived into the project.
"It's something I'm looking forward to, I've been extremely involved, obviously I'll be more involved when my playing career is done, but it's something that interests me," Jeter says. "I look forward to hearing a lot of different stories. I've been getting a lot of interest from people."
When asked about his interest in the written word, Jeter clarifies, "I'm interested in content," a line that just about every writer has heard from an editor recently, one that speaks to a declining interest in books, a changing media world, and it perhaps gives a peek into the possibility that Jeter eventually seeks a multimedia empire. After all, stories now come in all forms: music, video, photos, more.
Jeter isn't here to save the written word -- not even he is clutch enough to do that -- but a stated interest in stories, and this new venture, is somewhat of a revelation for someone who has always shied away from talking about any aspect of his off-the-field life. He says he is a voracious reader of longform magazine articles, although even those sometimes leave him unfulfilled.
"Sometimes you just wished there was more to it," Jeter said.
With his publishing company, Jeter hopes to expand on and flesh out some of those magazine stories that interest him. You may doubt Jeter's intentions, or be skeptical about how active a role he'll have in the company -- but just for the stringently private Jeter to profess a hobby, well, that's something, isn't it?
"A lot of times people see end games... but there's a process along the way," Jeter said. "I like to hear people's stories on how they got there."
We know how Jeter got here. We'll find out soon how it finishes.
* * *
Recently Jeter finished reading Andre Agassi's autobiography and was astounded at how one of the best tennis players in modern history hated playing his own sport. Jeter simply couldn't relate. He had played 19 years in the majors and had loved almost every minute.
But in the midst of that last injury-plagued season, Jeter's love was tested. His 2013 was a disaster, something even he admits. Jeter played only 17 games and was made miserable by numerous setbacks while recovering from a fractured ankle suffered in Game 1 of the 2012 American League Championship Series. When his season was finally put to a merciful end on Sept. 13, Jeter seemed relieved to simply to be done with it. He would regroup and look forward to 2014.
But then Rivera's retirement reached an emotional conclusion, and Pettitte's announcement seemed like the beginning of the end of an era, one in which Jeter had played a major role. It seemed obvious that the Yankees dynasty was headed toward a finale. If 2014 wasn't going to be the end, then it would certainly be coming shortly afterward.
"We're all getting older," Pettitte said. "It was almost like we had our run."
Uncharacteristically, Jeter became reflective and his emotions at times betrayed him. He wasn't going around sobbing, but he was wistful. He ended all doubt about his future when, just prior to the start of spring training this year, he announced his retirement effective at the end of the season. Perhaps showing a new acceptance of promotion that will come with his publishing business, he announced his decision on Facebook.
Jeter arrived in spring training this season in excellent shape and proclaimed himself healthy and ready to finish his career with a flourish. His retirement press conference was generally a bore. He showed little emotion -- there was still a season to play.
The initial impressions of Jeter during spring training have not been great. Yankees manager Joe Girardi said he has been pleased with Jeter's progress, but he has appeared meek at the plate. In a two-game stretch earlier this week, the first time he had played on consecutive days, Jeter failed to hit the ball out of the infield. Jeter has plenty of time to right his swing, but at his age, such dramatic adjustments, although not impossible, are more difficult.
Jeter has never been a very good defensive player. In fact, most advanced defensive statistical metrics rate him as one of the worst shortstops in the game, but now more than ever he has to rely upon his positioning to compensate for a lack of range.
"You learn things, whether it's positioning, whether it's how much time you have, the different situations," Jeter said. "You always learn through experiences. You're talking about 14 years since I was 25, I've learned a lot of through experiences ... You just learn who your pitchers are, you learn who the hitters are, what the tendencies are, what the counts are, pitcher's particular control on those days, how aggressive hitters are at a certain time. I think that's just something that you learn and you take all those things into account. That's part of your preparation."
Jeter believes that aging doesn't have to be all bad. It brings knowledge.
"I just think some things you have to learn through experience," Jeter said. "People can tell you all you want, but until you experience things, you don't really know how to respond to it. I just think through time, through experiences, through the more games you play, through the more things that you learn, the ups and the downs, all that plays a part in improving as a player."
During Monday's game against the Washington Nationals, Jeter dramatically shifted from one side of his position to the other side depending on the hitter. At times, he was so close to second base that it appeared he might just stand on top of the bag.
But Jeter's emphasis on positioning as he's gotten older appears to have made a difference. Jeter's fielding percentage has consistently stayed above .970 in the latter part of his career, with last year's lost season being the lone exception. So while Jeter's range continues to decline, at least he's been able to field the balls that have been hit to him, and part of that is because he's standing where the ball is hit.
"We do a lot of defensive spray charts and that always helps," Yankees infield coach Mick Kelleher said. "We like to play the percentages on defense. If a guy hits a ball in the hole, we're going to position Jeet in the hole. And if a ball goes up the middle, well, it goes up the middle. The percentage of balls are going to be hit where he's standing. Jeets is really good at recognizing swings and he's gotten better over the years."
Jeter does not appear to be one bit concerned about his spring struggles nor the early criticism. If anyone has been able to block out some of the negativity that comes with playing in New York, it's been Jeter.
"People, no matter how old you are, no matter what you do, will try to find some sort of a negative," Jeter said. "It's just the state of sports nowadays. I don't pay attention to it, man."
He has tried to downplay his retirement by refusing to answer questions that require him to speculate about his season or his future. He says he does not think about what his farewell tour will be like or how he's going to handle the rigors of the season. You want to believe him, but it seems like wishful thinking on his part. He has to be thinking about the end.
He's rarely been open about his thoughts or feelings, but the topic of his retirement is something he's especially tried to avoid. Jeter remains approachable -- he can often be found in front of his locker -- but he rarely says anything notable. When Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson chided Jeter this week about not talking to the media, Jeter quickly retorted, "That's not true Reg ... I still talk to them. I just don't stir s--- up like you."
* * *
On Monday, former Jets quarterback Joe Namath made a celebrated visit to Yankees camp, and he immediately sought out Jeter.
Namath, now 70, wore a baggy Yankee uniform with pants that reached almost up to his armpits. He staggered with every step as years of football injuries continued to take their toll. The final act of a former athlete's life can be cruel and painful.
After Jeter finished batting practice, he went into the dugout to greet Namath, who introduced his daughter and granddaughter.
"Hi, I'm Derek, nice to meet you," Jeter said while shaking Namath's daughter's hand, as if he needed to introduce himself. But that's Jeter, homespun and polite for so long and under such a spotlight that it almost surely has to be genuine. Can anybody fake it for that long?
There was a certain symmetry in seeing Namath, the past celebrated New York womanizer, meeting Jeter, the current celebrated New York womanizer, although even Namath admitted that Jeter handled the nightlife spotlight much better than he did.
"I've learned to respect what teammates and coaches have to say about the guys they work with and I've only heard wonderful compliments about him," Namath said. "And then we get to see him in person or on the television, the way he conducts himself in the game or off the field and, knowing the scrutiny that he's had over the years, I can't imagine how the guy could be an angel like this. He's to be respected in every phase of his life, it seems, and many of us fell short with some of that, but you learn to bounce back. It's human to err and I know about that. We do our best to come back. Derek hasn't made many errors that I've witnessed."
It was not difficult to imagine that one day Jeter would one day take Namath's place as the aged New York icon, and it's likely that Jeter will do a better job in that role too. There will not likely be any embarrassing drunken on-camera interviews.
Astoundingly, Jeter is now closer to the Namath version of an athlete -- the ex-jock making promotional appearances -- than he is to the young players on his own team, some of whom have taken to making fun of his age. While stretching in the outfield, Jeter often hears "old man" jokes, and he's not always laughing. Jeter may have a good sense of humor, but he doesn't like to be ridiculed or mocked, which is why he's kept his life so private: to avoid giving anybody ammunition with which to tarnish his reputation.
But he won't have to be so protective for much longer. Once the season ends, he won't be in the daily spotlight anymore, and you can tell he's looking forward to those days. One afternoon last year when reporters surrounded Jeter at his locker to ask about his injury recovery, Jeter challenged the media to ask him a question that he had never heard before. Nobody could. At this point, Jeter has seen it all, has heard it all and has answered it all.
The only question that remains is one not even Jeter could answer: How will it end? The quality of a great story is that it keeps you intrigued all the way to final page, and even Jeter's detractors must admit it's been quite the engaging tale.