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Even Derek Jeter can't mastermind his own exit; we are all the poorer for it

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If we're wise, we take our good-byes when we can, even when it comes to the much-feted and fare-thee-welled Derek Jeter. If his last home game is rained out, an important opportunity will have been lost.

Jim McIsaac

I try not to think about the Higgs-Boson particle much, nor the universe expanding to the point that all the heat goes out of it and it dissipates like a cirrus cloud full of cold, dead stars, or the opposite, that at some point it will run out of the energy necessary for its continued expansion and will snap back like God's yo-yo, collapsing into a super-dense singularity. Mostly, I try not to think about the fact that I won't be around to see it all.

Lately, though, Higgs-Boson particle has been in the news as a few helpful physicists have speculated as to why it exists, or that it shouldn't exist, or that maybe at any moment it will stop existing and we'll all cease to exist. It could happen... now.

Okay... Now.

Now.

Still here? I guess we're still here.

On Thursday, Derek Jeter will play the last home game of his baseball career, weather permitting -- a rainout would be the Providence's joke, a compromise on popping that particle. The cosmos mocks our sentimentality, and with good reason: As a matter of the normal course of things, we don't get to dictate the ending of anything.

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Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig got last days, but only after the over-ness of it was in the past. For the Babe there just a move on paper, his being released in the winter of 1934 so he could make his ill-fated transfer back to Boston. He got a couple of last days years later, when he was dying of cancer. Gehrig's day came after he had, with no prior notice, taken himself out of the lineup. History, and our lives, are full of this kind of thing. If you watched the recent "Roosevelts' series by Ken Burns, Theodore Roosevelt's heart gave out on the verge of what would almost certainly have been a successful run for the White House in 1920. Franklin Roosevelt stroked out just weeks before Germany surrendered. Hitler got to rejoice in his death, pretending this was the miracle that would break the alliance against him. Those in attendance at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on August 29, 1966 had no idea that they had just seen the last Beatles concert ever. Nor did all those who didn't go, but said, "Eh, I'm busy. I'll catch them the next time through."

In our own lives, we often don't get to say goodbye to those who we love most, since not everyone goes on something like a schedule, lying in bed somewhere "after a long illness." In that sense, I feel sorry for all those who bought tickets to Thursday's game and might get cheated of their last chance to see the best shortstop in New York Yankees history a last time. Saying "I was there" is a solipsistic act of boasting and, as distinct from "I was a participant," or, "I was part of a community" (as in remembering where you were when JFK was shot, John Lennon was murdered, the Challenger exploded, the Twin Towers fell) is almost contemptible, but closure is important.

Jeter
Photo credit: Jim McIsaac

"Closure" is a word often reserved for moments in which we must try to come to terms with things that are not easily accepted, and may in fact be an impossibility. Coming to terms with loss is a process of habituation, not healing. Be it the death of a loved one or the end of a meaningful relationship, in both cases the only true palliative would be the restoration of the thing you lost -- the living being for whom you cared or who cared for you, or the restoration of the feelings of friendship or romance that were wounded or faded. Since the former is an impossibility and the latter is a rarity, there is just what Thomas Mann called "getting used to not getting used to it." You live with the pain until the volume recedes to the point that you are capable of ignoring it. "Healing," though, is a lie.

Still, a lucky 50,000 fans and however many might have (and, at this writing, might still) watched on television deserved their chance to live that lie, because they are losing something real. For those of us in the media, or of an analytical or merely iconoclastic bent, the uncritical, fawning exploitation of Jeter by the Yankees, YES (I repeat myself), the national media, and the subset of uncritical fans (the bread and butter of every team) invited endless opportunity to try to poke holes in his bloated mythology, and thereby in the adulatory-industrial complex that grew up around him. In doing so, it was easy to lose sight of Jeter as the fans saw him, which in this rare case was more or less what he really was.

It is important to remember that it was never Jeter that was fueling this. Sure, he profited by it, but he wasn't engaged in buffing his own ego, at least in public. This was no Reggie Jackson saying he was the straw that stirred the drink. At the risk of speaking for millions of individuals I have not personally surveyed, I suspect that for most fans he simply was what he appeared to be for most of his career: A damned good ballplayer -- heady, professional, the centerpiece of a great, dynastic team, and, despite his generally subdued public persona, flashy at all the right times.

It was easy to lose sight of Jeter as the fans saw him, which in this rare case was more or less what he really was.

It's easy to forget it now that he's 40 and no longer what he was, and it was even easy to forget it when he was still young, as debates about his defensive value became painfully loud, that for years one of the great pleasures of watching baseball -- and this was during the years in which we were obsessed with Bonds! McGwire! Sosa! -- was Jeter ranging far to his right, snagging a ball in the hole, and then making the jump throw to first base just in time to nail the runner. Not far behind that were his great instincts when it came to tracking down pop flies into the no-man's land of the shallow outfield, running them down with his back to the infield.

Those plays might not have made up for his inability to go to his left, but they mattered. A doctor once suggested to me that an unrecognized aspect of athletic greatness was symmetry. If you look closely at human beings, they're not actually as evenly distributed as they appear to be at first glance (do yourself a favor and don't let this get into your head, because you risk permanently seeing the world in Picasso terms). The essential strangeness of Jeter is that although he might have been more symmetrical than the rest of us, his reflexes certainly weren't. That, along with the provocation of idolatry, made it easier to cover Jeter as a golden calf to be smashed than a great to be celebrated.

It only became easier to do this as his skills declined and the cost of his defense was less offset by his productivity at the plate.

That doesn't change the loss that Jeter's fans are facing. You don't love grandma any less because she's less of a looker now than when she was 25. You remember the good parts, you maintain that affection, and at the right moment, if you're lucky, you get to express it.

But sometimes it rains and it's already too late. As fatiguing as the Jeter Farewell Tour has been (Buy the souvenir towel! Hang the commemorative plate on your wall!), scrape all the selling away and it reveals itself to be about something important and sincere for a truly massive number of people. There's no reason to be sad that Jeter is going away, because when it's time for an athlete to go, when he can no longer push his team towards a championship, it's time no matter how beloved he is. But damn it, couldn't the weather have cooperated for those people who loved him? Why does everything about life have to constantly assert its contingency?

As Randy Newman wrote, "Human kindness is overflowing, and I think it's gonna rain today." Good-bye, Derek Jeter. There will be other great Yankees, but they won't see your like again. The hometown fans might not get to say it one more time, but it's true. I guess we just needed that one last reminder of how much of not-knowing there is, that all our plans are lies, that despite human kindness, the Higgs-Boson canceled itself now.

Now.

Good-bye, Derek Jeter, good-bye in the wet. Damn it. And if it doesn't rain, if the rain clears or slackens enough for the game to be played, then let even the Jeter-fatigued be joyful. How many good-byes is too many? I don't know -- how many good-byes is too many for any old friend who is slipping away?