The Derek Jeter Five Stages of Grief

I thought the day Cliff Lee chose the Phillies over the Yankees would be the worst day of my life, but I was wrong. It’s this. And the only reason I thought the day Lee chose the Phillies over the Yankees would be worse is because I thought this day would never happen. But like a kid watching the summer wind down with the inevitability of the school year approaching, this day was going to come.

And when I was a kid watching the summer wind down, Derek Jeter was the shortstop of the Yankees. On April 2, 1996, I was in Miss Ryan’s fourth-grade class when Jeter hit a home run on Opening Day on his first day as the Yankees’ starting shortstop. Fourth grade. I’m now 27. So Jeter’s career spanned elementary school, middle school, junior high, high school, college and now the first five-plus years after college of my life. And during these 18 years, Jeter has kept getting penciled in as the starting shortstop of the Yankees every day in April to October of every year.

In the last 25 months, the Core Four has become just Derek Jeter and in eight-plus months, there won’t be a connection to the ’90s dynasty on the team unless you count Joe Girardi. After the 2014 season, there will never be another Yankee to wear a single-digit number aside from during Old-Timers’ Day.

Derek Jeter is going to retire at the end of the season and leave behind baseball and a whole generation of fans that have come to expect him to be the starting shortstop every day of every summer. So to cope with this, I have turned to the Five Stages of Grief to help me analyze and get through this devastating news in hopes that come October, I will be prepared to move on and accept Mark Teixeira ushering in the next chapter of Yankees baseball. Hang on … Sorry I just threw up in my mouth.

Sometimes I forget that Derek Jeter is 39 and isn’t a 24-year-old shortstop anymore the same way I forget that Eddie Vedder is going to be 50 this December and won’t be climbing a three-story beam to stage dive off of during “Porch” (but I’m happy settling for him swinging on a light fixture to “Porch” like he did in October). And that’s because sometimes I forget that I’m 27 now.

Jorge Posada left and everything was fine. Andy Pettitte left and came back and left again and came back again and is now leaving again and everything will be fine. I got a taste of what life without Mariano Rivera would be like in 2012 after his knee injury, so I am prepared to accept “Sweet Home Alabama” over “Enter Sandman” in the ninth inning at the Stadium. But last year was the first time I was forced to watch the Yankees without Derek Jeter for a very extended period of time and it was weird. There was comfort knowing that he would be back and wasn’t gone forever, but now that there is an actual countdown clock on his career and not just an estimate, it changes everything.

When you find out that your favorite player and the last sports icon from your childhood is leaving for business and philanthropy work it doesn’t seem fair. I think Jesse Katsopolis summed it up perfectly in the 1994 Full House episode when following Papouli’s death he said, “I’m so helpless. It’s like if I could have been there, I could have done something. I could have helped him.” I just need Lori Loughlin here to tell me, “There was nothing that you could do. There was nothing that any of us could do.” Since really, Derek Jeter was always going to leave the Yankees and baseball on his own terms.

It’s hard to be angry at Jeter considering at 39 and turning 40 in June, he plays a position that no one plays at his age. No one. When he won the World Series in 2009 as a 35-year-old shortstop, everyone thought that was bananas and I’m sure it led to computers like Carmine to crash, but Jeter has defied odds and logic his entire career and has risen to the occasion and created fairytale-esque stories for every big moment he has been a part of. Whether it was hitting a home run on Opening Day in 1996 or hitting the ball that Jeffrey Maier would pull in or the 2000 World Series or the Flip Play or becoming Mr. November or the catch and dive into the stands or the 3,000th hit day or something as simple as ending the Yankees’ right-handed home run drought last season, Jeter has always done everything in a way that Disney or ABC Family would find too over-the-top and fake life to build a movie storyline around.

There isn’t really anything for me to bargain with about this unless the Baseball Gods want to take Eduardo Nunez from me instead and force him into retirement. I mean the Baseball Gods have already done me enough favors by having Nick Swisher leave for Cleveland, having A.J. Burnett get traded to Pittsburgh, having Phil Hughes sign with Minnesota, having Boone Logan sign with Colorado and having A-Rod suspended for an entire season to free up $25 million. So I guess letting Robinson Cano leave for Seattle and Jeter retire after two decades makes it all equal.

While awful, the announcement was actually timed perfectly for everyone. For Jeter, it gives the media a firm date for when he will leave the game, so he doesn’t have to answer relentless questions about his contract or how many years he wants to play for and the status of his health. For the Yankees, it gives them time to plan for the future and how they will draft, acquire or sign their first new everyday shortstop in 20 years (and it also gives them time to cash in on all the farewell merchandise and apparel, which I’m sure has Randy Levine dancing around his home to “Shout” in Risky Business-like attire while spraying champagne all over his furniture). And for the fans, it gives them time to plan a trip to the Stadium this summer to see Jeter and not be taken by surprise with a postseason retirement announcement without one last in-person memory of Number 2.

Thanks for those who sent the sympathy texts, emails and tweets and also to those who sent the “Get Well Soon” cards.

You’re supposed to keep busy during this period so I have been watching The Wire every free second I have and thankfully there’s Team USA’s quest for the gold medal to watch and look forward to. And the Rangers will be back in a couple weeks and then there’s March and March Madness and nice weather not too far away. See, everything is going to be fine. I’m going to be fine. It’s going to be fine.

We are a long way from this. I’m talking years. Maybe one day when I have kids of my own and they have a favorite Yankee (sorry, Brittni, they won’t be Dodgers fans), maybe then I will learn to accept that Derek Jeter isn’t a Yankee. The more concerning thing is if this is how I feel after he announces his retirement, how will I feel once he actually retires? Hopefully I have more than eight months to find out.

The good thing about this announcement is that it isn’t goodbye, yet. I wanted to write something about this announcement because I felt it made sense to, but I didn’t want it to drag on in a 5,000-word sappy goodbye letter. But don’t worry, I will have those 5,000 words (at least) in October. I will save my best and most deserving goodbye for Jeter when he actually leaves. It will be way more over the top than the ones I gave to Jorge Posada in January 2012 and Andy Pettitte this past October and the one I plan on giving to Mariano Rivera prior to Opening Day and the first year without Number 42 in the bullpen.

For now, I will soak it all in. Every walk-up to the plate with Bob Sheppard’s voice pouring out of the Stadium and echoing onto River Ave. for everyone at The Dugout and Billy’s and Bald Vinny’s House of Tees to hear. Every immediate glove wave to Section 203 before the first “DER-EK JE-TER” of roll call can even be completed. Every boo (or now appreciate applause) he receives on the road. Every Boston fan wearing a “Jeter Drinks Wine Coolers” or “Jeter Sucks A-Rod” shirt. Every emphatic clap while standing on first or second after a big hit. Every over-the-top first pump in the field after the game-ending play. Everything. And then when that final game comes, I will be ready to say goodbye.