Derek Jeter, and Our Own Mortality

New York Yankees' Derek Jeter approaches the batter's box for an at-bat in the third inning of a baseball game against the B
New York Yankees' Derek Jeter approaches the batter's box for an at-bat in the third inning of a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The baseball great Jackie Robinson was famously quoted as saying, "athletes die twice." And I found that thought echoing in my mind as I watched the final games of Derek Jeter. What must this past season have been like for a man with still so much life before him, hearing all those eulogies to his youth? "Ballplayer" is the only identity Jeter has ever known, and now, at an age when many are only getting started, he will have to redefine his life.

Throughout his career Jeter has earned a reputation for being circumspect with the press, for keeping his private life private, along with his thoughts, hopes, and fears. As a journalist you want people to talk but I always respected Jeter's short answers and silence. He was, as so many fans and commentators have noted, a throwback to a time when the mark of a professional was do your job well and let that speak for itself. But one always wondered whether Jeter was so quiet because he didn't have much to say or whether he had a lot to say but was keeping it to himself. I always sensed the latter, and now, after some remarkably un-Jeter-like press conferences, we are getting a window into this man who for two decades lived in the spotlight without casting much of a shadow. We have learned that this star athlete, who played on baseball's biggest stage and whose private life glittered with the bright lights of Hollywood, is human like the rest of us. He spoke of holding back tears and some of the uncertainty of what's to come. And that glimpse of vulnerability seemed to only raise his mythic status.

But this outpouring of emotions surrounding Jeter is much more than just about him, or even baseball. We tear up at a Gatorade commercial not just because we will miss Jeter playing shortstop but because we recognize that we are all moving towards our own final curtain. Twenty years, we think, has it all gone by so fast? We measure the milestones in our own lives over that time: births, and deaths, graduations, marriages, and divorces, new jobs, retirements, and everything else that marks the human condition.

I think it is poignant that Jeter's departure from a game that was once accurately called America's Pastime comes at a moment when our nation's current most popular sport, football, is facing so much controversy. Growing up in Texas, I played football and have always loved the strategy and power of the gridiron. But I always thought that baseball captured the better instincts of our republic. When I would travel the world and hear some of the negative stereotypes about the United States, I would often shake my head and think to myself if only they understood baseball. Americans have no appreciation or sense of history? Tell that to the guys at the bar arguing over whether Clayton Kershaw is better than Sandy Koufax. Americans are impatient? Tell that to the father who brings his daughter to Cubs games, year after year. Americans don't appreciate nuance? Tell that to the fans wondering what the pitcher is going to throw after setting up a hitter with two consecutive sliders in the dirt.

But more than the games or players themselves, it is the baseball season that I find so resonant. It starts in spring, when, as I heard one Mets fans say, "spring hopes eternal" (or maybe the punctuation should read "Spring! Hope's eternal"). The season, then, peaks through the long days of summer, only to invariably wind down with the coming chill of fall. And if your team is really good, it cheats death for a couple weeks into the postseason -- closer to winter. Baseball is a game where the best teams will have losing streaks and the best hitters will fail more than they succeed. It's a game where you don't have to be freakishly tall or big to succeed. And throughout it all, it is a game that marks time. One former Major League outfielder told me what he misses most about his playing days was the sense of seasons. Over those 162 games, he would find comfort in tracking the shift of the arc of the sun in the sky, as human beings have been doing since before recorded history. It's no wonder that the renaissance of baseball stadium architecture returned the game to one that is best played outdoors.

After Jeter's remarkable game-winning hit in his final at bat at Yankee stadium, he walked out to his spot at shortstop to take in the view. It is a view that none of the rest of us will ever experience. And yet anyone who has ever sat at a desk on a final day of work for those last few minutes, or hugged a daughter before walking her down the aisle, or took one last tour of a childhood home after selling it following the death of a parent, knows what Jeter was feeling. We want time to stop -- just for a second, but it won't. And yet the beauty of the circle of life is that it is unbroken. The arc of the sun in the sky continues on its prescribed path. And come spring there will be a new shortstop taking in the view at Yankee Stadium.

As for Derek Jeter, I am eager to see what the future holds. I hope that he continues to feel freer to share his thoughts. For with baseball, and life, no matter how much you think you know, there's always more to learn. And I think on both fronts Number 2 can teach us a lot.