The baseball season is a long and lonely road. To preserve his sanity, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter keeps a diary. These are excerpts from The Captain’s private journal.
Thursday, September 4: vs. Red Sox
Everybody gets older. It’s a fact. If you doubt that for even a minute, please point out someone you know who has gotten younger as their life progressed. You can’t, because it’s never happened. There are no Benjamin Buttons in real life. That was just a movie with a scary wrinkly old-man baby. People don’t age backward, even Brad Pitt.
Even me. The media seems to love pointing that out. They like to talk about my batting average, my range in the field, as if that’s evidence against some claim I’ve made. I’ve never said anything like that. I fully realize that I am getting older, and that my time as a baseball player is almost over. I was the one who made that call. Nobody called me on the phone and said, “Hey, Captain, bad news, time’s up.” If anything, I made that call to myself. And it wasn’t a bad news situation. It was more like, “Hey, Captain. You get the chance to win one last Series this year. Isn’t that incredible? I gotta go now, there’s a lot of hard work to be done, can’t waste any more time on imaginary mind-calls. See you on the field at 5 a.m., champion.”
But age is not the reason I’m hitting whatever I’m hitting. Or that a ball might sneak through the infield between me and whoever’s playing third base that day. I’m not wearing down. I’m not slowing. I’m in the best shape of my life. As a high-level athlete, you know your body better than anyone else. You’re with your body every minute of every day. You live inside of it. The guys standing around your locker don’t know anything about it.
They don’t know that I’m ready to put this team on my back the way I always have. All of them. Even the expanded-roster guys. Pile the whole 40-man roster on me, I don’t care. I did extra core exercises this week, my foundation is strong.
My job as Captain is to carry them all into the postseason. It’s that simple.
And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
Look at the box score from tonight. Two home runs in the bottom of the ninth off one of the best 39-year-old Japanese closers in baseball to lock down a huge win.
This team’s ready to hop on and ride me to the playoffs. Finally.
Friday, September 5: vs. Kansas City
A shutout’s like a knife in the heart. A pretty dull knife, because it takes nine innings to finish you off. You almost wish that if someone’s going to stab you, they get it over with quicker than that. But that’s why you hate shutouts. They’re slow and cruel, like a David Ortiz home run trot.
We can’t afford to go out there and put up a zero like this late in the season. You can’t win the game if you don’t score at least one run. It’s mathematically impossible according to the rules of our game, even if the other team’s only run is unearned and it feels like it would be more fair to keep playing until somebody finally scored a real run.
We have to do better. We have to hit.
We have to score. At least once.
That’s not the most inspiring game plan. But maybe it needs to be said. You’d trade inspiration for a run on a night like tonight every single time.
Saturday, September 6: vs. Kansas City
“We have to score. At least once.”
It turns out that when a Captain says that in the locker room before a game, it actually winds up an inspiration.
Because I say it. I throw down the metaphorical batting glove. And then there is a long, quiet moment while they consider the challenge I’ve issued.
Until someone else says: “Let’s get two.”
Which then becomes: “We can do three.”
Followed by: “Four is not out of the question.”
And soon it’s: “We’ve had five before. Guys, we can get five.”
Leading up to: “Six? Six. Yeah, six.”
That’s where we stop, because it was a call-up who obviously didn’t know it wasn’t his place to talk in a situation like this. His place is to quietly hold his cup of September coffee and listen to the veterans call out the number of runs we are going to score. But it still feels correct somehow. So no one kangaroo-courts him for piping up out of turn.
Instead, we go out there and get those six runs.
Final score: 6-2.
He still doesn’t get to talk when we try this again tomorrow. Maybe he can hold up some fingers. We don’t want to mess too much with what’s working.
Sunday, September 7: vs. Kansas City
It’s strange to have your own day while you’re still playing.
It’s strange to wear your own final-season logo on a patch on your sleeve.
It’s strange to see that logo also painted on the field. And flying from flags in the outfield. And flashing across the JumboTron. And written in the sky above the stadium by the Blue Angels, which, truth be told, was a really nice touch.
But dead people have days, and patches, and flags, and skywriting.
Not living ballplayers in the middle of a drive for a championship.
It was my day, and these things were all a part of it because I wasn’t involved in the planning. Except for the request that if they insisted on doing it, we do it in early September and not late September, when it would distract from the pennant race.
And so I sit in the dugout with my current teammates, watching as they announce all the special people the Yankees had invited to celebrate me, a person who is not dead and but is still witnessing something that feels like his own wake, right down to a bunch of white folding chairs and crying loved ones.
They bring out Grandma Dorothy. Then my parents. My sister and nephew. The new commissioner-elect, Rob Manfred, who may or may not have been sent here to kill me in front of my family by Bud Selig. Harold Reynolds. Reggie. Geno Monahan. Matsui. Mr. Torre. Bernie. Paulie. Tino. Mo. Jorgie and a severed elk head from Pettitte, who’s stuck on a hunting trip with his kids. Tim Raines, who’s put on so much weight we’re all calling him Soft Rock. Gerald Williams, who won this appearance from me in a high-stakes Connect Four game on a red-eye to Minnesota like ten years ago and somehow didn’t forget to cash it in; maybe he’s not that busy these days.
They bring out Jeter’s Leaders from the Turn 2 Foundation, who hold up photos of every Yankee teammate of mine rostered during the five World Series seasons. It’s a very long procession, but you appreciate the contributions of all those faces, even those whose names you can’t quite remember, which is most of them, quite frankly. You can’t be expected to recall anyone who wasn’t around for at least the four rings of the Original Dynasty, you’re a baseball player, not some infomercial guy with the memory tricks that tell you to picture Denny Neagle eating a plate of eagles at a Denny’s.
They bring out the “surprise” guests: Cal Ripken, who made the game safe for tall shortstops like me. Dave Winfield, my childhood Yankee hero even though he never won a championship here. Michael Jordan, the only athlete on the planet who believes he’s more obsessed with winning than I am, which is both impossible and crazy.
They bring out a check for $222,222.22 made out to Turn 2.
They bring out Hal Steinbrenner, his wife, and the Boss’s grandchildren, who present me with a Waterford crystal trophy. I pass on reading the inscription while Hal talks because I know that I’ll somehow find that there is an eloquent death threat from Mr. Selig in there, and maybe a nice etching of a crow hidden inside the 2 on my logo — his evil engravers are incredibly talented, you have to tip your hat to them.
They bring out a microphone so I can address the crowd. I don’t have a speech prepared because I believe that at moments like this, you just have to go out there and take it one sentence from the heart at a time. I thank the fans. I thank the Steinbrenners. I thank the Yankees. I say all the things you would expect me to say, because they’re all true. These are the best fans, they are the greatest owners, this is the best organization in the history of sports.
But all I want to say is:
Everyone stop talking about me like I’m already gone.
I’m not dead.
I have a game to play.
I have a World Series to win.
Let’s throw this party in late October instead.
Monday, September 8: Off Day
I get home from a workout to find my dining room set up for an elaborate dinner.
A-Rod is sitting at the head of the table. Wearing a tuxedo jacket. And two bow-ties: One around his neck, one around the end of his tail. I can see the tail one because it’s flipped up onto the table, which seems like it would be bad manners, but you never want to make assumptions about centaur etiquette.
“Join me, would you, Jetes?”
He gestures toward the only other chair. I sit down.
He claps twice and suddenly a full staff of forest creatures fill the dining room, hustling to and fro, scrambling to bring out the food. Within moments they’re done, and they disappear as quickly as they came.
“There’s such good help available in the wardrobe. I’m going to miss them.”
“Are you going somewhere?”
“Soon enough, soon enough. But we have something to discuss.”
He claps again and a pair of squirrels carefully tip a bottle of wine toward his outstretched glass. Except it’s not wine that pours out, it’s my Passionfruit for Winning Gatorade, which actually should pair well with the quail course that arrives with it — it’s a sophisticated but subtle flavor.
“I’ve come to an important decision, Jetes.”
“It must be pretty important for you to go through all this trouble.”
“We both know your time in baseball is almost up.”
“And we both know that next season, you’ll be gone, and I’ll be back.”
“That’s your plan, as I understand it.”
“So it seems to me that the only logical thing is that when I return to the Yankees, I should take your place at shortstop.”
“That’s entirely up to Girardi. Not my business.”
“And I should also take your place as Captain.”
He swishes the Gatorade around in his glass, lifts it up to his nose to sample the bouquet, and empties it in a giant gulp.
“We’ve discussed this before. I don’t think that’s going to happen, Alex.”
“You won’t nominate me, your greatest friend and teammate?”
“That’s not how it works. You have to be chosen.”
“You can choose me, Jetes. You’re the Captain.”
“I can’t even explain the process to you. There’s a True Yankee code.”
“Are you saying I’m not a True Yankee?”
“The suspension made you ineligible.”
“I prefer negotiated hiatus.”
A-Rod holds out a finger. A bluebird lands on it. Which Alex immediately crushes to death with his other hand. Tiny blue feathers fall to the table when he unclenches his fist.
“This is a very hurtful turn of events, Jetes.”
“The team is going to need a leader. A Captain.”
“There’s nothing I can do about it.”
“It’s going to need inspiration … ”
He reaches down, picks up a feather, and places it on the end of his tongue. He savors it for a moment before swallowing.
” … Especially after its current Captain fails to win another Series for them on his way out the door.”
“We’re going to win.”
“Of course you are, Jetes. Of course you are.”
Alex dabs at the corner of his mouth with a napkin. He balls it up and tosses it onto the table.
“I said that twice just so you know I don’t believe it.”
“I picked up on that.”
“This could have been so special. One Captain anointing another.”
“I can’t do that, Alex.”
He claps and the forest creatures all return. But instead of clearing the spread, they follow him back to the wardrobe.
“Then I’ll find someone who will.”
He opens the wardrobe door and the animal servants file in ahead of them. I hadn’t noticed there was a beaver in a top hat before. Maybe he was running the kitchen.
A-Rod follows them inside.
“You’re not going to win this year. You know that.”
But I don’t know that.
I don’t know that with my entire heart.
I go back to the dining room and begin cleaning up the mess.
The bluebird feathers almost look like they’re forming a small number 2.