High theatre at Fenway: Jeter’s Last Game

Have you ever read Raymond Chandler’s dandy little classic, “The Long Goodbye”? Probably Raymond’s best work, it’s about the lamentable fade-away of Terry Lennox, a breezy though reckless hustler who nonetheless remains most likeable.

Baseball at the moment is in the final throes of another of its own version of a long goodbye. It stars Derek Jeter, true son of the baseball gods whose generation-long glide through the travails of a professional sporting life leave him near mindlessly exalted and thoroughly unscarred, but in the end no less on borrowed time, much as Terry Lennox was.

Scott Fitzgerald was wrong. There are second acts in American life and sometimes even thirds and fourths. But not in sports, not when you reach your late 30s or early 40s and suddenly there are no more games to be played, hits to be smote, hoops to be sunk, cheering mobs to doff your cap to, or wave your stick at. There are athletes who’ve described reaching the end of the line as being comparable to a kind of death. That’s a bit melodramatic, perhaps, but in the metaphorical sense, perfectly true.

And so we, the chorus in this arch, shrill, and eternal theater, are left with the task of dispatching the latest Siegfried in the custom to which, in our richest imaginings, he’s entitled. It can get sticky. The art of the fond farewell is always strained. Wagner raised it to preposterous heights by ushering his heroes to Valhalla on barges sprinkled with treasure across lakes of fire in loud and furious ritual. Viking funerals might have been a lot of fun if they weren’t quite so permanent. One suspects if it weren’t for the honor of the thing, a chap might prefer to walk.

But then simply wandering off into the sunset with a tip of the cap and a rakish smirk was never really an option for Derek Jeter; not after the wonderful exit orchestrated so brilliantly for his pal, Mariano Rivera, just a year ago. Moreover, the grand finale is a New York staple, expected and demanded as well as easily rising to the turgidity of grand opera itself. As it turns out, Mariano’s moment, for all of its charm, was mere prelude to Derek’s, which is totally off the charts.

Still, you wonder this much: Were Jeter to have it to do over again, would he do so?  Would he formally announce his departure so early, thus making it necessary to wander the length and breadth of the Republic all spring and summer and into the fall collecting “stuff,” all of it well-intended if little useful, while taking bows and fielding compliments in exaggerated wave upon wave that at some point must have become tiresome, presuming his ego is of mortal dimension. Would he have cause to wonder, “How can all of this be all about me?” Bear in mind, we’re not talking about another A-Rod here.

It’s inconceivable he did it because he needed the “stuff,” most of which will doubtless end up in a minor museum in Kalamazoo. Far more likely is the notion that he sensed duty and actually finds in this parting a kind of sweet sorrow.  Not knowing the man really, further probing his deepest motives gets silly so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.  He has always seemed to have solid perspective.

This much he can never be denied. Throughout this odd junket running the gauntlet of the baseball multitude’s apparently boundless affections, Jeter has remained unfailing gracious and polite in his simple but uncluttered way. He departs the field of play with his slate in matters of smart deportment and good manners as near perfect as it gets. It offers a splendid counter-point given the state of these sporting times. Maybe that’s what best explains the ongoing phenomena of this remarkable victory lap and perhaps even justifies it as well.
Some of the nicer moments are coming in these last days; “nicer” because they are spontaneous and unquestionably genuine, given that they’re springing from the people who pay the freight and deem Jeter someone from whom they always got their money’s worth. These are accolades tender to behold as they pour forth with an increasing intensity as the clock winds swiftly down.

He gets standing ovations when he steps to the on-deck circle or even bends over to pick up a gum wrapper. Pop-ups that he bloops into the outfield are enough to bring patrons soaring from their seats, hoping for one of those fabled farewell utterances of lore. Every swing sets off thousands of cell phones, their lights blinking all over the ballpark. In late innings, they chorus him with rhythmic litanies, “De-rek Je-ter” (over and over and over) and “Thank you, De-rek.” Very quaint!  Fans always get weepy at such moments. It’s what fans, by definition, exist to do. But even by that standard, this is over the top.

In his monumental New Yorker treatise on the subject serenading Ted Williams’s fabled 1960 farewell at Fenway, John Updike wrote of how there was a special yearning in the lament of the fans, or such few as chose to show up that memorable yet oddly understated and misty last day.

It seemed to Updike an urgent appeal for mercy, a kind of cry for redemption. It was as if there were something they wanted the Great Man to forgive or, perhaps, something they wished to give him to remember them by. None of which anybody was able to precisely define, let alone impart. But then Williams was a much more complicated package than Jeter. He barely endured a thinly muted ten-minute so-called “retirement ceremony” staged just before the game at which he was given a fishing rod. Williams would have tolerated the grandiose Jeter six-month farewell odyssey for about five bloody minutes.  

Thanks to Updike, the Kid’s “adieu,” as it was headlined, has become the yardstick of this curious art form despite its quirkiness and utter paucity of sentiment and/or joy. It is, as every New England schoolchild knows,  because with his positive genius for the spectacular, dramatic gesture, the Kid clubbed one out his last time at bat. The fact that Orioles rookie Jack Fisher quite certainly laid one in there – fast, fat, straight, and right over the middle of the plate – doubtless on the order of his manager, Paul Richards, the Kid’s old foe and deep admirer, never did matter a soupcon, nor did the fact that the old boy retired on the spot rather than end the season traveling with his team one last time to New York for the final weekend, thus stiffing the Yankees who had planned their own nice farewell. Only Teddy Ballgame could have gotten away with it.  
As luck would have it, Jeter’s journey also ends at Fenway Park. His team, a mediocre hodge-podge of bruised journeymen and unproven youth, will be running out the string with considerable embarrassment, while the Red Sox, firmly settled in last place, will have their collective eye and energies on catching the next train out of town. It has been a drab season for both of these erstwhile “Beasts of the East,” and next year the Red Sox should still be in the middle of their latest transition while the Yankees won’t have the Derek Jeter sideshow to obscure their deep-seated flaws.

So Jeter’s last game means absolutely nothing, as was the case with Williams. But the fans will care, and care deeply. Even in Boston. Maybe even especially in Boston, where on various occasions they’ve been known to make fools of themselves expressing childish loathing for all things Yankee. But never for Jeter! He has always enjoyed their willing dispensation.

One expects something notably dramatic. It may not take the form of an overawed Boston hurler serving him a meatball that he might hit over the fence, nor is it likely Jeter, with his rapidly diminishing 40-year-old skills, could do that, even with a batting-practice cookie.  The party is over, and wise lad that he is, he knows it.
But there’s a particular poignancy about his “Long Goodbye” ending in Boston. Watch and see!