I am not a Yankees fan. In fact, you either love the Yankees or you hate them, and I don't love them. I grew up in Philly, and we are rivals with NYC on principle. I moved to Seattle just in time to see the epic 1995 series between the Mariners and Yankees, still the most celebrated sporting event in the last 20 years here. There's an old saying that rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel. Which was updated to IBM, and now probably Microsoft. Some folks identify with the Yankees, including three of my closest friends. But they're not exactly David vs. Goliath. Well, they're Goliath, actually - Goliath with a luxury tax. (Except for natives of NY/NJ/CT, I have a theory that only Republicans become Yankees fans. There's nothing wrong with that. I'm just saying that rooting for the Yankees is more of a worldview than a sporting romance.)
However, I am a fan of some Yankees. I like Ichiro, the longtime Mariner who is getting to play meaningful baseball for the first time in a decade, and seems to be re-energized. I like Raul Ibanez, who punched his ticket with both of my favorite teams, spending two stints in Seattle before playing for my hometown Phillies. Seems like a good guy and is hitting like Roy Hobbs these days. And I don't know anybody who doesn't like Yankee closer/legend Mariano Rivera, who has had the best career throwing one pitch of anybody ever and who injured himself doing what I'd like to believe I'd do if I pitched in the big leagues - shagging fly balls in batting practice.
And then there's Derek Jeter. I've thought a lot about Jeter in the past two days. For the uninitiated, Jeter is the captain of the Yankees, a rank that means something. His rise in the mid-90s coincides exactly with the Yankees return to relevance after a lost decade (they were like U.S. Steel then, as well.) Jeter is one of the best hitting shortstops of all-time. While I agree with the stats geeks that his defense at shortstop has been middling for some time, he never misses a play for lack of effort, enthusiasm, or craft. He's never been in trouble, other than for having abused the baseball tradition of cliche as interview response. And he's a handsome guy who spent three years dating Minka Kelly of Friday Night Lights fame.
But Jeter's not immortal. He's 38 years old, playing the most physically demanding position on the field (aside from perhaps catcher). And players slow down in their late 30s. Just ask his 37-going-on-65 year old teammate, Alex Rodriguez.
Saturday night in extra innings during the first game of the American League Championship Series, Jeter ran hard to his left - he always runs hard, even if going to his left is his weakness - and dove for a grounder, a tough play. He gloved it, but winced immediately and noticeably. Jeter, always heads up, shoveled the ball to a teammate to prevent the runner from advancing before collapsing head down in pain. After a quick on-field examination that would have spelled doom for his equine equivalent, it was time for Jeter to leave the field. His manager started to carry him off before pride compelled Jeter to limp off on his one good leg, still leaning on Joe Girardi for support.
A short time later, Jeter's injury was confirmed as a broken ankle and a prognosis of a three month recovery was announced. Distracted at the time, my mind filed the news under "back for Spring Training." But the next day I read an article that considered the possibility Jeter could be done for good. A broken ankle is a lot to come back from, and his advanced (for baseball) age and perceived resistance to accepting a less demanding position doesn't help. And then it hit me: Derek Jeter is going through what I'm going through.
My softball season was a difficult one. I just had one nagging injury after another, punctuated by tantalizing, but fleeting moments of health and the mirage of youth. I pulled my calf muscle, then recovered and hit a triple. I pulled my hamstring, and went 3 for 5 two weeks later. And for the first time in my life had knee discomfort. The pulls healed, but my knees didn't start recovering until I accepted just recently that I needed some off days. They're feeling better now (mostly), but I do wonder if I have another softball season in me. At 41, I really want to play again. I'm hitting better than any time since I started my "comeback" at age 39, having finally learned the differences between hitting a baseball pitched in anger and a softball arced softly to home plate. While I have no stamina for third base anymore, let alone Jeter's demanding shortstop, I can play first without hurting the team.
But running the bases has become a game of chance. My body never was built for those bursts of acceleration, but especially not now that my muscles, ligaments, and tendons are less pliable than they once were. It would be a cruel twist of fate if trying to play my way into shape on the softball field led to an injury that hurt my long-term mobility.
I'm taking it easy, recovering finally now that it's October. But soon I'll try slowly getting back into playing shape. Maybe I can do it again and experience the thrill of holding my own as a 42 year old in a sporting event, relying on guts and passion, muscle memory and knowledge of the game. Or maybe my aches and pains tell me it's time to will the game to my sons. Whatever the case, I hope I'll have the wisdom to know when to quit, and when not to quit too soon.