What’s it like when the athletes we grew up with begin to retire? Charlie Zegers looks for some answers.
I’m approaching one of those big round-number birthdays that people seem to dread. But most of the time, I don’t feel old.
I don’t feel old when I look in the mirror. Seems fair to say I still have a youthful appearance, a combination of good genes and the fact that, as someone who works out of my home office, I have a bad habit of dressing like a 17-year-old skate punk. I don’t feel old when I work out. Of course, the fact that I rarely work out helps. Sometimes I feel old when I wake up in the morning. The feeling usually passes with the second cup of coffee.
But there’s one thing that consistently makes me feel older than the median age customer ordering the early-bird special at a Floridian Denny’s.
My favorite diversion—the thing that is supposed to take my mind off of weightier topics—has betrayed me.
I blame Derek Jeter.
Jeter broke in with the Yankees when I was just out of college. I’d been a fan of the team since the days of Reggie Jackson and David Winfield, through the Don Mattingly and Dave Righetti era, and even stubbornly hung on as Mel Hall and Andy Hawkins gave way to Paul O’Neill, Wade Boggs and Jimmy Key. Those early Joe Torre teams made me a more committed fan than I’d been at any point since the 1981 strike. And that kid playing shortstop seemed to be the catalyst for it all.
Today, that kid’s hall-of-fame career is winding down. He used to get press for remarkably heady “flip” relays, November home runs, and headfirst dives into the stands. Now, it’s either “he just needs two more hits to pass some other legend on the all-time hits list” or “he’s got the lateral movement of Jabba the Hutt and needs to be hitting seventh in the order.”
I’ve watched players get old before. I saw Bernie Williams’ unceremonious exit from Yankee Stadium, watched the Knicks mess up their salary cap for a decade by trading an end-of-career Patrick Ewing. But Jeter’s decline hurts more. Because he was the kid at the center of it all.
And because he and I are actually pretty close in age.
What happens when Jeter does retire? He’ll become the pinstripe hero of my generation, like Mickey Mantle to my father-in-law and Joe D. to his father. He—and Mariano Rivera—will get the most massive ovations at Old Timer’s Day.
It won’t have any impact on me. Not directly, anyway. Or will it? I can’t shake the idea that the end of the Jeter era in the Bronx will be the end of a chapter of my life, too. Too melodramatic? Maybe. Maybe not.
We should actually be grateful that Jeter is showing his age. It’s been too long since we’ve seen a superstar baseball player in his late 30s actually play like he’s in his late 30s. It reinforces the idea that, even when the league was one big walking pharmacy, Jeter was clean. That might be the only other thing he and I have in common—I’m proud to say that I’m writing this piece without any assistance from the cream or the clear.