Well, here we go again with one of those topics I find endlessly fascinating and others probably find beyond tiresome: Sports and getting older and how people handle such things. This one features Derek Jeter and Tiger Woods.
Eighteen or so months ago, you might remember, Derek Jeter had a surprising and inspiring comeback season. He had been in clear decline for two years going into the 2012 season. In 2010, he hit .270 with a .370 slugging percentage. In 2011, his average improved to .297 but he still slugged sub-.400, and even some of his most boisterous fans conceded that, yeah, maybe his defense at shortstop had fallen off. He was turning 38, and he was slogging to the end like mortals do. Or anyway, that was the way it seemed.
Then he had a Fountain of Youth summer. Jeter hit .316 with a league-leading 216 hits. He cracked 15 homers, slugged a respectable .429 and the Yankees won 95 games and topped the American League East. Jeter crushed the ball in the Division Series against Baltimore. It was a beautiful story.
And it was a story that inspired a whole new narrative about Derek Jeter: Hey maybe he WASN’T getting old. That is to say, maybe Jeter could hold off the years. There was talk from inside his camp that he wanted to play into his mid-40s or later. And there were some (including my good friend and Jeter biographer Ian O’Connor) seriously talking about him challenging Pete Rose’s all-time hit record.
Jeter had 3,304 hits at the time -- still almost 1,000 shy of Rose -- but he’d just led the league, and he seemed hungry enough, and anyway who could doubt Derek Jeter?
Well, as it turned out: Pete Rose doubted him. I was in Las Vegas as the playoffs began and stopped in to talk with Rose for a while. There are obviously many things Pete Rose is not too smart about, but he knows more than anybody about the hit record. And he made it as plain as he could: Jeter had absolutely NO SHOT at breaking his record. None.
Yes, you could say this was just Rose playing the role of grumpy ex-athlete who doesn’t want anyone to break his mark, but I don’t think so -- not entirely. He clearly liked Jeter. He clearly appreciated Jeter’s style of play.
He just knew that Jeter could not stand up to the years. Almost no one can.
“How many 40-year-old shortstops you see walking around?” he asked me. And then, in that calculating way that always marked Rose’s approach to baseball and life, he broke down EXACTLY why Jeter had no chance to break the record. Rose had shamelessly chased plate appearances -- from Philadelphia to Montreal back to Cincinnati -- to break the record; he knew Jeter would not want to leave the Yankees. Rose was basically indestructible -- a brick-bodied expletive in writer Scott Raab’s elegant description -- while Jeter has always been lithe and wiry. Most of all, Rose just understood the wearing power of time. It never stops.
“Let’s say he does it again,” Rose said doubtfully about Jeter getting 200 hits. “Let’s say he gets 200 more hits next year. And let’s say he gets 200 more hits when he’s 40, though I don’t think he can. OK, can he get 200 more hits when he’s 41? You think he can? ... Fine, let’s say he does. OK, now he’s 41. He’s going to get 200 more hits then? At 42?”
His voice dripped with doubt. “Let me tell you, I’ve been there. The body locks up. Jeter’s a great hitter; I’d say he hits like I did. But he’s gonna get 200 hits when he’s 42? I don’t think he will. And even if he does all that he’s STILL 150 hits short.”
Rose shrugged. It was simple math. Rose had gotten the hit record through desperation; nothing else mattered to him. Nothing. As a player-manager he kept inserting himself in the lineup when he was a punch-less .264 hitter. Rose knew Jeter would not and could not make those same deals.
And, three days after the story ran, Jeter fractured his ankle going for a ground ball in Game 1 of that ALCS. He came back for only a few games the next year and has hit .259 and slugged .315 since. Time caught him.
But that’s not the interesting part -- time catches everyone. The interesting part is how Jeter has responded to it. This week, he was named a starter in the All-Star Game. It’s a lifetime achievement kind of award, and it is a part of this goodbye season. Everywhere Jeter has gone, he has been celebrated. He has been given gifts. He has been greeted with touching newspaper obituaries.
Just eighteen months ago, nobody could have known how Jeter would have responded to an outpouring like this. The best bet is that he would have loathed it. Jeter has always been an intense competitor, and he has always been about team, and it’s hard to think of anything that would have offended him more than a “Year of Jeter” celebration.
But this is a funny part about growing older; you start to see the world a little bit differently. When Jack Nicklaus was young and winning, he would say that nothing on earth interested him less than being a ceremonial golfer. The very idea of, in his words, “shooting 80 and waving to the crowd,” sickened him.
But then, like everyone else, Nicklaus started actually shooting 80. And life didn’t stop. It turned out that shooting 80 did not diminish all the great things he did. And waving to a crowd that never stopped remembering and appreciating him wasn’t too bad either.
Jeter has, by all accounts, embraced this season. He has tried to take time to enjoy things. He has stopped to remember. He has been more approachable than ever before -- and he was always pretty approachable -- and every now and again he will even take a second to reminisce. The All-Star Game will be emotional for him because he will let it be emotional. That’s pretty cool.
So, what does Tiger Woods have to do with any of this? Well, it turns out he’s 18 months younger than Derek Jeter -- and more or less in the same position Jeter was before he got hurt in the 2012 season. Oh, sure, people will tell you that he’s a different kind of athlete and he plays a sport that is much kinder to older players, and that’s true to a point (though probably not as true as many believe).
The point is, some people still think he still has a good chance to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships. Fewer think that now than did three or four years ago, but some believe. Nicklaus, unlike Rose, speaks positively of Woods’ chances; well, he’s a very different man from Rose. Nicklaus talks about how Woods can compete at majors until he’s 50, which means he has 45 more chances to win five tournaments. “He can do that,” Nicklaus said.
Maybe Jack believes that, maybe he doesn’t, but I don’t. I haven’t for a long time. Woods has not won a major in six years, he’s coming off another injury serious enough to make him stop playing for months, he’s got young kids to occupy his time and attention. I don’t see any possible way he can win five more majors. One, perhaps. Two, going to be tough. But five? No. Do you know how many golfers had a six-year gap in the middle of their career and then came back to win multiple majors? None. Zero. Nada.
Thing is, right now, Woods still believes -- or at least give the appearance of believing -- that he can become the game’s dominant golfer again. And you have to say that he is Tiger Woods, and he has done so many unprecedented things, and a year ago he won a bunch of non-major tournaments.
But even his biggest believer would concede there is at least a chance that it’s downhill from here. How would he handle that? What will Tiger Woods be like when he realizes he can no longer win consistently? Will he keep hammering golf balls in a desperate effort to squeeze the last bit of greatness out? Or will he pull back, relax a little, enjoy being the great Tiger Woods? Will he open up to the crowds? Will he retreat deeper into his private life?
I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong answer, there clearly isn’t, and it isn’t anyone else’s place to decide. Every great athlete handles the final years differently, which is exactly how it should be -- every great athlete deserves the chance to write their own ending.
Still, it will be fascinating to see how Tiger handles the final years, no matter how triumphant or difficult they turn out to be. Eighteen months ago, none of us knew how Derek Jeter would finish it off. Back then, it seemed like he might chase his career wherever it took him, might try to get every last hit he had inside him, might keep playing until they took away his uniform. That would have been an inspiring ending in its own way. But this ending -- with applause and gifts and just a little reflection -- is inspiring too. The older I get the more I realize that the ending comes no matter what. The human part is dealing with it.