For Derek Jeter, the question becomes: How many games does he have left?
Derek Jeter couldn't understand it. Or maybe just pretended like he didn't.
In Jeter's mind, this was supposed to be a news conference about the Yankees putting him on the disabled list with a sore ankle, a jarring move that finished his season. So why then, before Wednesday night's game at Camden Yards, were people asking him about retiring?
"There's a lot of 'end' talk here, man," Jeter said, finally. "You guys want this to be the end for me?"
It was Jeter's way of playfully getting his point across without drawing blood, giving the pack of reporters the flat side of his sword. Delivered in his usual matter-of-fact tone, the message was clear.
I know what you're thinking.
And you can forget it.
Nah, Jeter wasn't going out like this. You could try to get him to entertain the idea of a position switch, or accept the notion that a 39-year-old, on a twice-fractured ankle, would never again live up to his Hall of Fame standards. But Jeter wasn't playing along. Not now.
"Why? Just because of an ankle injury?" Jeter said. "It's been a nightmare, but you don't start thinking about the end just because you have to deal with an injury."
People tend to side with Jeter due to the fact that, well, he's Derek Jeter and has earned the benefit of the doubt. But that changed during the past 11 months, starting with the night his ankle cracked during Game 1 of the ALCS.
Until then, we believed that Jeter was indestructible, and the evidence seemed to back him up. Over the previous 18 seasons, he had been on the disabled list a total of four times, with nothing more serious than a dislocated shoulder.
This year, however, Jeter has made five trips to the DL, and Wednesday's move was announced after the Yankees decided he had become a danger both to himself and the team's playoff chances. That has to be difficult for Jeter to digest, and it's only the start of what already is shaping up to be a long winter for the Yankees' captain.
Brian Cashman talked confidently Wednesday about how Jeter would be back for the 2014 season -- and playing shortstop, just in case there might be any confusion.
While Jeter has the power to unilaterally guarantee the first part, based on the $9.5-million player option he holds for '14, the specific details of his immediate future remain murky.
After playing in 17 games this season -- one cut drastically short by a chronic ankle problem -- Jeter only has his name for leverage at the negotiating table, so he can probably ditch any thought of anything more substantial than his current '14 option. And that's presuming he'll be healthy enough to be a regular contributor next season on a team very much in flux.
Last October, after Jeter's ankle was repaired, we were told rehab would make him whole again and getting up to speed for Opening Day was not something to worry about. A few screws, a plate or two, and he'd be as good as new.
Instead, Jeter suffered a second fracture, a strained quadriceps muscle -- on his first day back -- and then a calf strain. Not exactly how the team's doctors or the Yankees' front office had mapped it out. But now, on the day Jeter is shut down, we're hearing from Cashman how the ankle is a "complicated structure" and his rehab was a "complex circumstance."
Even so, the GM refused to suggest last Saturday's game against the Red Sox might have been the final one of Jeter's career. "No, I don't believe that," Cashman said. "I have not watched his last game. No one has."
That's probably true. But after what we've seen this year, the question becomes how many games does he have left.
"There are no guarantees," Joe Girardi said, "but I know he's going to do everything in his power. When you talk about what's inside of Derek, it's special, and that's what made him great for so long."
If Jeter is able to return for Opening Day in 2014, and be anywhere close to his Hall of Fame self for another season, that would be special. It just doesn't seem realistic, whether Jeter thinks so or not.