The baseball season is a long and lonely road. And so is the offseason. To preserve his sanity, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter keeps a diary. These are excerpts from The Captain’s private journal.
Tuesday, April 1, at Houston Astros, Opening Day
When just about everything in your career has played out perfectly, like a beautiful picture you’ve spent 20 years painting across the canvas of your life, you might expect that your final Opening Day would also play out exactly as you would have wished. A crisp April afternoon at the Stadium, in front of the best fans in the world, who are there to celebrate the beginning of another championship season. That’s all you ever want on Opening Day. Your city, your crowd, your first win of the year. Maybe you go 1-for-3, or 2-for-5 with a double and a steal, or even 0-for-5; the individual result doesn’t matter, just as long as you’re getting that W for the team.
But baseball’s a funny game. We’re in Houston, weirdly, the same place where last season ended, that nightmare season of no playoffs and a thousand injuries and 140-something games of sitting on the sideline, not helping the team win. You hate to express disappointment about spending Opening Day in Houston instead of the Bronx, the schedule is what it is, and sometimes you open your final year in a breakfast juice ballpark with no history, a hill in center field for no good reason, and a sad Thomas the Tank Engine living above the left-field wall, waiting to choo-choo around for a meaningless homer for a last-place team. Sometimes you send your ace to the hill, hoping to get him back on track after a down season, only to watch him struggle out there, robbed of his good fastball by age and some kind of flesh-eating disease no one talks about, trying not to notice the way he cradles the phantom girth of his midsection in the dugout in between innings, like a mother who misses her baby. Sometimes you’re hit with a pitch in your first at-bat, and you watch as things go south from there, the bats never wake up, and the team never really gets it going. Sometimes you head back to the showers without that W, listening to the annoying little train that circles the clubhouse blowing its taunting victory whistle, because maybe not all organizations have the class part of things worked out just yet.
I head back to the hotel room, ready to forget a day that didn’t go as planned. But as soon as I walk in, I find a plate of rotting ribs on the desk, with a fork sticking out of them, holding some parchment in place. It says:
I told you this is My Year.
Did you not believe me?
And so I’ve sent you back to Hou’s Town to suffer yet again, in the place where your worst Season ended in Ignominy.
How did the Beaning feel, Captain? Does it still Sting? Can you still hear the Chin Music I ordered for you?
It is just the opening strains of the Chin Orchestra I shall personally conduct for you.
Enjoy your Farewell Tour.
I shall be watching.
Commissioner of the Base-Ball.
Post Script — The ribs are Jeffrey Maier. He was Succulent.
This was definitely not how I pictured my final Opening Day.
Wednesday, April 2: at Houston Astros
The Astros are doing the best they can playing host to the beginning of my last season. You appreciate the effort, you do. But you’re never going to be comfortable with the whole thing, because it’s not like they’re going to have little ceremonies for all 25 guys and take the spotlight off you and put it back on the team, where it belongs. For one thing, that could get expensive, and franchises like Houston would be better served spending their money on some players instead of gifts, even though you’d hate to tell anyone how to run their business.
They brought in Pettitte to throw out the first pitch. That was a nice touch, though it was a painful reminder of the years he left us to play in Houston. They also gave me pinstriped cowboy boots, a Stetson (not pinstriped), a set of golf clubs, and a white-hot no. 2 branding iron which they politely asked me to use to mark all their shortstops while the sellout crowd looked on. You don’t care what the local tradition is, you’re not pressing your number into some other player’s lower back, even if he begs you to.
And then we went out there and played terribly. You’d never blame it on the awkward branding thing, but that definitely didn’t help. The shortstops all wound up doing it to themselves anyway. On one level you’re flattered they want to wear your number, but not like that, not with all the screaming and the smell of burning flesh. Houston’s a very strange place.
This road trip is just starting and it can’t be over soon enough.
Thursday, April 3: at Houston Astros
In a season that will have so many lasts, it feels important to stop and enjoy the firsts. Our first W. My first RBI of the year, even though that doesn’t matter. The new kid Yangervis’s first start and first hit. D-Rob’s first save as Mariano’s successor.
In the locker room, Solarte asks me to sign his ball. I try to explain that it’s his hit, it’s not supposed to have my name on it. I’ll give him a signed ball, the whole personalized gift basket if he wants it, but he should sign his own ball, put it in his trophy case. It’s something to show his kids one day, just like how every Saturday morning I’ll escort my future children through any of the six Halls of Memories (one for each ring I already have, plus this year’s) in the Championship Wing of the Tampa house, reliving the best years of my life with them. Solarte seems a little disappointed by the explanation and insists I sign the ball anyway, which I do, because his counteroffer involves the branding iron and (a) I already established that’s something I’m not comfortable with, and (b) I’ve been told nobody else on the Yankees gets to wear the number 2 after this year. That’s not my decision, it’s a management thing. It’s out of your hands whether or not they bestow an incredible honor on you. You just have to respect their wishes on stuff like that.
Friday, April 4: at Toronto
Here’s another first: Tanaka’s first start in America, as a Yankee. And first W. It’s just an incredibly special thing to toil away in obscurity in Japan, serving basically as an indentured baseball servant over there, and finally get the chance to win in the big leagues. If there’s one thing about it that’s not great, it’s that he gets to sign a $150 million contract before ever throwing a pitch in the majors, because players should really have to pay their dues over here before getting life-changing money like that. But the system is what it is. You get to dominate in another country for a few years and then have your dreams come true in America. That’s something for the union to fix if it wants to. It’s outside of a Captain’s responsibilities, especially a retiring one.
One nice surprise: I got to chat before the game with the scout who signed me. “Pretty good choice, huh?” he jokes. I remind him that I went sixth in the draft.
“I don’t even remember who went first!” he says.
I shrug and pretend I don’t know, either.
But I know.
Phil Nevin gets the gift basket every year on the anniversary.
The note says, “Bill, thank you for the motivation. —DJ2”
Monday, April 7: vs. Baltimore Orioles
You try to tell yourself it’s just another Opening Day.
But it’s not just another Opening Day. It’s your last Opening Day at the Stadium, in front of the greatest fans in the world. Our city, our crowd, our first home win of the year. You hate to repeat yourself, but it didn’t go so well in Houston, so it feels good to run back the thought under better circumstances so that it’s like the other one never happened. That’s the power of writing. The journaling coach taught you that a long time ago, that the winners rewrite history, so take advantage of that in your diary. Maybe you flip back to 2001 and erase Luis Gonzalez and 2004 to wipe out Dave Roberts. You won’t, but you could.
You’d be lying if you said you weren’t excited about a moment like this, maybe even have some Opening Day nerves. You’re human and have emotions and feelings, you’re not a baseball robot, even if at times you operated with a ruthless and mechanical efficiency. You have to tell yourself it’s OK to have butterflies, as long as those butterflies are just as committed to winning as you are.
But after that first pitch, it’s game on. No more nerves. You’re still here to win another championship, nothing less. One last parade through the Canyon of Heroes, along the Sidewalk of Victory, and down the Avenue of Immortals. Today’s win was a tiny step toward that goal. We’ll need to take about another 100 baby steps to get there. We’re all ready.
After the game, Yogi drops by my locker, holding a sandwich. You hope it wasn’t the same sandwich from back in February, but you feel like it would be disrespectful to ask, because maybe the lunch meats from the Infinite Buffet keep a long time. Either way, it’s not like a sub full of expired capicola’s going to kill Yogi at this point, he’s been through too much.
He leans in and whispers to me.
“If you get 10 rings, you live forever.”
I look down at this hands. He’s wearing all 10 rings.
“It ain’t over till forever.”
He shrugs, takes a bite of the sandwich, and walks away.
I look around an Opening Day locker room at the Stadium for the last time.
No Andy. No Mo. No Jorgie.
There’s Beltran. And Ichiro. Tanaka. Ellsbury, somehow. Brian Roberts? The remaining half of C.C. Five relievers you’ve never seen before, or possibly new bat boys.
Across the clubhouse, Solarte and Dean Anna are branding each other with the iron. They both give me two thumbs-up, point proudly to their new numbers.
The entire place smells like barbecue.
All that matters is winning this last one. Time is running out. Some of us will never get to 10 rings.
Sunday, April 13: vs. Boston Red Sox
We take three of four from the Red Sox, but Girardi sits me the last two games because of a sore quad. We’re not going to have a repeat of last year, he tells me. Not in your last season. We gotta keep you healthy, he says. I fight him on it, both times, but in the end he gets his way, because he’s the manager, and a good Captain has to respect that authority, even when it’s misguided. Sometimes you have to lead by the example of pretending to agree with somebody who thinks they know more about your body than you do.
I go home and I’m still thinking about it as I watch the highlights. You can’t let yourself get caught up in one series in April. You know deep down, in the winning place, that all pre-postseason games are equally meaningless, baby steps, means to a championship end. But you still want to play. You always want to play. Especially now, when you know you’re not going to play forever.
I hear something in the other room and mute the TV. The creak of a cabinet door.
Then something banging around in the kitchen.
Then another sound. An approaching sound.
Clop clop clop.
Clop clop clop.
I look up and A-Rod is standing next to the couch, towering above me, powerful haunches silhouetted by the darkness of the living room.
“I sensed you were sad, Jetes.”
“I’m not sad, Alex.”
He crouches down on his front legs, almost a bow. There’s something simultaneously regal and submissive about it.
“I made you a snack.”
He places a tray on the coffee table in front of me. There’s a giant salad bowl full of what seem to be Lucky Charms marshmallows and an entire pitcher of grapefruit juice.
“That’s very nice of you, Alex.”
“Why are you sad, Jetes?”
“I’m not sad.”
“Are you sad because Girardi sat you twice? I’ve been there.”
“I’m not sad.”
“Do you want to know why I’m sad?”
He crouches down again and grabs the salad bowl. He attempts to pour all the marshmallows into his mouth. Purple stars and yellow moons cascade everywhere.
“It gets lonely inside the wardrobe.”
“I never technically invited you to live in there.”
“I have no choice, Jetes. No one can see me until the suspension’s over.”
He gulps down the pitcher of juice, licks his lips to clear the technicolor marshmallow fragments clinging there.
“So, thank you for letting me live inside your wardrobe, Jetes. You’re a good friend.”
He waits for me to return the compliment, but I just sit silently, staring at the TV. Beltran homers in slow motion, his third of the season.
I hear him clop off to the bedroom.
Then the creaking of the wardrobe doors opening.
“I’m right here if you need me, Jetes. Don’t be sad.”
The wardrobe doors bang shut. And I hear him again, muffled.
“Nobody gets 10 rings.”