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How Jeter's Retirement Has Marked the End of My Childhood

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On Tuesday, Derek Jeter announced he will play one more season, then retire.

I was immediately devastated. And the more I mulled it over, the more upset I became.

My reaction had nothing to do with baseball or the decision's implications for the New York Yankees, my favorite team.

The emotion came from the symbolic significance of Jeter's end. For the entirety of my upbringing he's been my favorite player and celebrity hero, and as his career has winded down he's been a tether to the stage of my life when athletes were worthy of worship.

Jeter's last game will leave me -- to the substantial degree that my identity is tied to following sports -- feeling like a full-blown adult.

Kids and grown-ups don't watch sports the same way. For children, the experience is about intensity and emotion. My favorite team and my favorite player are the best because I say so. Objectivity? Context? Perspective? No need.

Athletic heroes fit perfectly into this framework. There's no complexity or rationality to a hero -- he's accessible entirely through emotion, where he's perfect and infallible. Kids are naïve enough to meld heroes out of strangers who play sports.

For adults, the sports experience is different.

Grown men and women watch, and they root, and they care, but without that youthful energy. Adults know about the real world and sports' lack of importance to it. On some level, most grown sports fans understand there are better uses of their passion than men half their age wearing monochromatic uniforms and diving in dirt.

Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, there's a transition. Gradually, logic weathers away emotion.

Going on 20 years old, I've transitioned most of the way toward the mature sports experience. I root for the Yankees with far less vigor than I once did and coldly analyze players through their statistics.

I'm in college, where I learn more and more every day to reason with logic, not emotion. I believe in what makes sense, not what feels right. Moreover, I recognize the fallibility of professional athletes, understand them as real people. In a year or two, someone younger than I am will debut in the Major Leagues.

My days of hero worship are over. Pure fandom has been soiled by sense, maturity, perspective.

Not that I fight this effect. To the contrary, I consciously strive to be as rational as possible in how I feel, think and talk about sports.

But with Jeter, I've never quite gotten there.

I've conceded reality with half my mind. The logic-driven portion knows Jeter has defensive limitations and that his "clutch" reputation is somewhat overblown. It knows he doesn't walk often or hit for much power and has had nowhere near as productive a career as Alex Rodriguez or even Cal Ripken Jr. For much of his time in baseball, Jeter wasn't the best player on his team, let alone the league.

But that other half of my brain doesn't care. I can't fully assess my hero through sensible reasoning. When presented evidence of one of Jeter's faults, I scramble for a rationalization. If I hear him criticized by a friend or on TV I jump to his defense. As he steps to the plate I just feel in my proverbial gut something good will happen.

Jeter, having been my favorite player on my favorite team for as long as I've known home plate from a China dish, is a final vestige of childhood irrationality.

And it's no coincidence his career has provided me more enjoyment than another athlete's ever will. Hero worship is undeniably fun.

Building up idols, rooting for them with every ounce of heart and mind, caring about them more than you can explain and feeling personally fulfilled when they achieve something great? It doesn't get better.

But there's no way to force that kind of passion. It either exists -- most often in children-- or it doesn't.

So I'll savor my final year with Jeter and cling to the lingering irrationality of my faith in him. I'll so badly want for him to succeed, if only to affirm my idolatry.

Then, with no senseless attachments remaining, my sports-fan childhood will be over.

Derek Jeter has been a constant in my life. On the first day of kindergarten and the last day of high school, Jeter was the Yankees' shortstop. When I started in Little League and when I was cut from the high school team, Jeter was the Yankees' shortstop. From my teething years to my teenage years, Jeter was the Yankees' shortstop.

Jeter as the Yankees' shortstop is a fact of my universe.

In late-September (or October if the Yankees and their fans are lucky) it won't be. In the future, the Yankees will have new shortstops and new marquee players. Maybe, the fresh faces will stick around long enough to become idols for another generation of little kids. Those young Yankee fans will pull for their heroes with all they have, amplifying the players' strengths and ignoring their flaws.

I'll know, of course, that their emotion-obscured fandom is ridiculous and irrational.

After all, I'll reason, those guys are no Derek Jeter.

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