NEW YORK -- The 700 or so people had paid from $125 to $2,000 per ticket to squeeze into the Hudson Theatre, a little jewel box of a venue in midtown Manhattan, early Monday afternoon. Now, for the better part of an hour, Derek Jeter was being interviewed by Brandon Steiner, a longtime friend who runs a memorabilia business that is so efficient at confiscating collectibles, Jeter joked if he wants to keep any mementos from this last week of his career, "I'm going to have to walk out of the stadium in full uniform."
And the audience laughed.
"I'm not making this up," Jeter needled, his voice almost plaintive now.
The Jeter farewell tour has been alternately nostalgic and heartfelt, awkward and funny, over-merchandised and occasionally underwhelming if the measure is waiting for Jeter to cut open a vein and bare his soul about what he expects to feel like by Thursday, when he plays his last game at Yankee Stadium. Or by Sunday, when he says goodbye for good in the Yanks' regular-season finale at Fenway Park.
"No, that ain't right! Fenway? C'mon," joked former Yankee Bucky Dent.
Dent, who was seated at one of the tables of honor Monday along with former Yankees Hideki Matsui and Chris Chambliss, added: "Can't they turn it around and play his last game here?"
But Jeter said he's fine with it. As he sat on the stage Monday in a sharp white shirt and black suit, happily away from the usual sports media types who stand two or three deep around his locker most nights, Jeter fielded Steiner's questions and gave fans a little glimpse of the Jeter nobody knows. And, like the New York magazine article that posted online earlier in the day ("Oh? Didn't read it," Jeter shrugged), it turns out Jeter has had some surprises up his sleeve all along. And not just, as he told the magazine, the fact he didn't like that story way back when that suggested he gives his romantic conquests a gift basket as a parting gift the morning after sleepovers.
For starters, how about the wide presumption that they'd have to tear the uniform off Jeter to get him to go? How about the way Jeter is considered a New Yorker now to the bone, an iconic part of the city fabric, same as DiMaggio or Mantle? The real truth is, everything about this last year of Jeter's smacks of impermanence, not clinging to each precious moment: He sold his longtime East Side apartment a while ago and has been living all season in a West Village rental. He often flies to his newly built mansion in Tampa for the day during the season when the Yanks have an off-day. And when asked if he could play another year, he told Steiner, "I feel like I could.
"But I don't want to."
Derek Jeter has had enough baseball?
"I'm making no plans in the beginning," Jeter said. "I've been on a schedule my entire life. I'm looking forward to not being on a schedule."
Jeter went on to talk about other things beyond the field. He reached back into his childhood and said he very much liked basketball as a kid but, "I was scared to play football. It was just too much." He tweaked what the media has said about him at times ("Don't believe everything you read."). Several times he stressed how he always thought the way a player comports himself is as important as what he does on the field. But when asked what influence his parents had on how well he has turned out, Jeter deadpanned, "They've had nothing to do with it." Then he laughed and went on to praise what terrific people they are, and how he expects to be a "strict dad," same as his dad was.
Jeter has long been one of sports' most active bachelors. But as it turned out, he said there was something else at work all these years in which he's dated starlet after starlet: He never tried to settle down and start a family sooner, because "I just know that I personally couldn't have done it while I was playing. I was you, know, too selfish, I guess.
"I was too selfish to be able to juggle a family and kids. But I look forward to it happening."
What else does he see himself doing in 10 years?
"I'd like to own a team some day," he said.
Jeter's answer as to why he's not married with kids at 40 was not the answer you expect from the city's most tracked playboy since Joe Namath. Isn't Jeter the same man who made a Visa commercial with George Steinbrenner spoofing his late-night habits?
"I go to bed by 9 and I get up at 5:30 a.m. every day to work out," Jeter insisted.
So, to recap: Derek Jeter, star of the Yankees, the man whose just-released sports drink commercial is scored to Frank Sinatra's rendition of "My Way," is actually a man who doesn't even own a home in Manhattan. He often bolts town on off-days the first chance he gets. He has played two decades and is often considered one of the great gamers of all-time -- he said yesterday he kept the seats he famously crashed into from old Yankee Stadium when it was torn down -- but he is more than ready to walk away from baseball, thanks. And he would've settled down sooner if he hadn't betrothed his life to baseball first.
Jeter was fine with all of that coming out in the course of Monday's conversation.
But when Steiner explicitly asked Jeter if there was anything more he could tell the crowd that "someone might not know about you," the Jeter we're used to came back. The shutters slammed shut again.
"Well, if you don't know, it's by design, so ... I don't want you to know," Jeter smiled.
Then, his face growing serious, Jeter added: "I just think that your private life is private. What I do [as the Yankees' shortstop] is obviously public. I get that. I get the fact that people are interested. I'm interested in what people are doing.
"But I've chosen to stay private."
Jeter was long ago assured of heading to the Hall of Fame. His baseball legend will always be gilt-edged. People will always talk about what a winner and a class act he was. How that home run he hit for his 3,000th career hit was just more proof of his flair for the moment. And yet, he also took pains several times Monday to insist the wonder of it all has never worn off for him. And he never, ever took a bit of his journey for granted.
People keep asking Jeter, as his career has funneled down to this last week, to pick a few moments that stand out to him as more "amazing" or "surreal" than the rest.
And Jeter just keeps stubbornly insisting he doesn't think that way.
"It's all of it -- [but] I'm trying not to reminisce yet, you know?" Jeter said. "I play a game where you're supposed to control your emotions. It's a game of failure and success. And you have to be able to control it. That's why at times this year it's been difficult, because you go places and they're showing video montages and you feel like, like, you're dying or something."
Again, the crowd laughed.
"It's the whole thing," Jeter repeated. "When you're a kid, it's like, 'I dreamed of playing shortstop for the Yankees.' But that's where the dream stopped. Then you just want to make it to the major leagues. And everybody pictures themselves hitting a home run in the World Series. But everything else that's come along with this, I never could have dreamt this."
Nobody has to tell him he has seven games in these next seven days to go, starting Monday night against Baltimore. Jeter was in a horrible 0-for-24 slump just before the Yanks got back to town. He seemed to be playing on fumes. It was said he picked the right time to quit, all right. Then -- what do you know -- his clutch gene seemed to kick in, as if he refused to go out like that. He began this last homestand at the Stadium hitting 6-for-13, with his first home run at home in ages.
The Jeter nobody knows will deal with whatever roiling feelings he's fighting inside. But that was the same damn Jeter of old down on the field these last few nights. And he doesn't need any reminders that the end is near.
As Jeter said before he left Monday to head out to the Stadium, "I don't have to wake up for a few more games, so ..."