You’ll forgive me for interrupting the normally newsy content of this site with a few thoughts about … baseball. And the Yankees. One Yankee in particular.
A miracle may still happen, the club may yet snap out of its season-long hitting funk and win enough games to reach the playoffs. Old-schoolers like me who remember “pennant races” won exclusively by first-place teams, will swallow hard and celebrate nonetheless, should the Not-Really-Bombers manage to scrape to the SECOND wild card berth… or Team Number 10 out of 30 to reach the postseason. Whatever.
It’s just hard to keep rooting for a club when you simply can’t connect with the players, or even care to remember their names. Such has been the case for two seasons, as a group of seemingly faceless mediocrities have played in Pinstripes. Last year we endured last-minute “Who’s he?” replacements for injured stars (not once all season did I see a fan in a Vernon Wells jersey). This year we’re subjected to aging veterans purchased at great cost but performing dramatically below expectations, as well as a new cast of virtual unknowns (Can you keep the Brians, Ryans, Brendans and double-Chases straight? I can’t). Jerry Seinfeld likes to say we don’t really root for a team, “We root for the shirts!” Sadly, those shirts have become empty suits.
There are exceptions, of course, and none more exceptional than the shortstop we won’t be seeing much longer.
I’ve been a Yankees fan since the days of Maris and Mantle. I’ve watched the team lurch from Murderers’ Row to Mangled Mess, from “REG-GIE” to Rigor Mortis and back again. I stayed loyal as long as I could. But from the late ’80s into the early ’90s, I lost interest. Though the club still carried one or two noteworthies on the roster, the team played poorly. Worse, after the outsized, egomaniacal Billy Martin Bronx Zoo era, they seemed boring. Toss in the ’94 baseball strike and it was very easy to just dismiss the whole lot of them.
Then along comes Derek Jeter.
Not by himself of course. He played with a bunch of equally eager and talented young players who wanted to win, and a sage-like manager who knew how. Suddenly the Yankees were champions again, and deliriously happy about it.
All the players were fun to watch. Jeter was special. We all have the same memories. Those leaps into the stands. The clutch hits (a home run in NOVEMBER??) The famous “flip!” What was he even doing there? (“I was supposed to be there,” he says, barely blinking). Jeter played hard. He played intensely, like it mattered more than anything else. Because to him, it did.
This was Old School. A reincarnation of the vintage Yankee ballplayers who set the bar higher and lived up to it. This was what I’d been waiting for, and I wasn’t alone. Fans wearing player jerseys? Go to any game, anytime. It’s wall-to-wall pinstriped 2′s.
Others have written eloquently about Jeter’s character, so let me just point out a couple of things that make a difference to me.
First, his 20-year career took place during a rather ugly time, when many pampered-rotten superstars besmirched their respective sports by engaging in boorish, abusive, and at times criminal behavior. Steroids. Dog fights. Spousal abuse. The occasional weapons charge. Or simply mouthing off, or walking away, because the obscene fortunes they were paid to play a child’s game wasn’t enough, didn’t show respect.
Derek Jeter epitomizes respect.
Not a speck of scandal. Not a cross word about anyone. Actually, barely any words at all. But when he does talk, it’s about the game. Or his family. Or the fans. In careful, meticuloulsy non-controversial tones, always with gratitude. And respect. Addressing 50,000 fans after the last game in the old Stadium, there was no hooting or hollering, no “Listen Up!” no “I Can’t Hear You!!!” Nope.
They gave him the mic. And he said, “Excuse me…..”
Second, this so-called Farewell Tour (a term he hates, he says, because he wants to focus on winning, not leaving) we’ve been watching. Yes, Mariano Rivera’s long goodbye last season was moving and emotional, and Rivera went out with class, dignity, and one of his strongest seasons ever.
But Jeter is struggling, and he knows it. We all know it. Look, he was never Superman, and at 40 years old he’s not what he once was.
Still, there he is, nearly every day, playing as hard as ever (“You’re on the field maybe three hours a day,” he said recently. “Why wouldn’t you play hard?”) He runs out every grounder, sacrifices himself to advance runners, occasionally delivers a clutch hit, even manages to quiet those “no range” critics from time to time:
I just think there’s something sweet about watching a performer age, decline perhaps, but not give up.
I’ll miss him. I’ll miss watching him walk to the plate, accompanied, at his insistence, by a recording of the late Bob Sheppard. I’ll miss the way he readies himself in the batter’s box, stretching his right arm behind him, as if to say, “Give me a moment, please.” I’ll miss that slightly playful expression on his face when he jokes with the catcher, and how that vanishes when he faces the pitcher. I’ll miss the “DE-REK JEE-TER” chants by the Bleacher Creatures and how Jeter always tipped his cap to them from his perch at short. I’ll miss it all.
More than a couple of columnists say they believe Derek Jeter saved baseball, rescuing the game from the PED era. I don’t know, sounds a little grandiose. But here’s what I do know. Derek Jeter made me a Yankees fan, all over again. I’ll always be grateful to him for that.