By Jason Keidel
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The clamor over Derek Jeter is so loud and tense you expect a swordfight to ensue in a few hours.
I wrote Jeter’s baseball epitaph on this Web site last year (“September Song for Mr. November”). The piece was prescient and now you’re mad at those of us who rather reasonably predicted that the captain of the New York Yankees, a no-brainer Hall-of-Famer, no longer plays like one, and never will. The next time you’ll see Derek Jeter hit .330 is in syndication, or on his “Yankeeography.”
Show me a stellar 37-year-old shortstop who isn’t a patron of BALCO. Jeter hit .270 last year. Cal Ripken hit .270 when he was 36, and Ernie Banks hit .276, though both had better power numbers than Jeter.
The Hall of Fame is, by definition, inhabited by men who retired because they could not perform anymore. Many of these men were better than Derek Jeter, yet Jeter is somehow above the inevitable and inexorable grip of Father Time, who never lets go. But we must let Jeter go. For his sake, for our sake.
In a sense, Jeter’s decline unveils his dignity. The whispers that he never cheated have morphed into mandates, his on-field countenance and performance a walking bullhorn for respect. Respect for the game, himself, his peers, his friends, and his fans. He did it the right way.
His scripted platitudes after every game give him a synthetic persona. Honestly, there’s no need to interview Jeter after games, because you’ll get the clichés you got yesterday, and the month before that, and the year before that. But the fact that he’s too bland for the back page shows how vigorously he regarded his reputation.
Jeter went 1-for-4 last night, keeping his batting average at a very average .250. It won’t likely get better from here. But at his age and wage he will be the vortex of many verbal scraps over the next few months. Many want him to get his 3,000 hits and retire with the aged elegance of his single-digit predecessors.
Seems fair. Except that the Yankees, as I feared, slid another suitcase of cash under his door, signing him to a rather exorbitant contract before this season. It was clearly a legacy contract, a pat on the back for having the team’s back since 1996. Does he deserve it? Any answer is subjective. But the economics of athletics were never fair, as bloated as a steroid-swollen bicep.
Jeter is this generation’s gentleman icon. Perhaps our grandparents felt the same sorrow over Joe DiMaggio. But if you watched Mantle hobble around the bases as though he stepped on a landmine at first, or cringed as Mays stumbled around Shea Stadium’s centerfield, or watched Carlton get slapped around Veteran’s Stadium, you know that this happens to every mortal, even an immortal.
Jeter will leave the game, fly a private plane, and land on his parking lot. His driveway can double as a runway, leading to a mansion with its own area code, 38,000 square-feet of opulence. Jeter will retire at around 40 with nine-digits in his bank account.
And this is the man you pity because we have the temerity to cite a few facts?
The problem with the Jeter debate is it’s unfairly framed. To hear his apologists, anyone who dares to question his production is a traitor, some ungrateful, mutinous mope who wouldn’t know a baseball if it drilled them in the jaw.
Let’s be clear – we’re all for Derek Jeter. Even the most rabid Yankee detractor has no quarrel with the Captain. Baseball, more than any sport, trades on a star’s stats. But it also trades on nostalgia, and once the physical and metaphysical clash we arrive at a most awkward axis – the aging legend.
They are old when their stats don’t reflect their stardom. That’s where Jeter is today. The numbers don’t lie, nor should they. Nor should you feel sorry for him for that.
Here are some numbers. Jeter will have his retired the moment he hangs up his spikes. He’s assured a bronze bust in Cooperstown and a plaque in Monument Park, and perhaps a few national parks bearing his name, along with streets, avenues, and boulevards from Michigan to Manhattan.
For 15 years, he’s had supermodels on speed dial, and open invitations to open bedrooms we’ve only dreamed of entering. He’s still quite handsome, his retreating hairline the only hint of age. He’s had no real injuries, meaning he won’t limp toward his golden years. His wits and wallet intact, he can slide into a studio as an analyst, take a job as a coach or spring training instructor, or assume a most privileged position as baseball ambassador and eternal Yankee. It’s a rough life.
We can talk about his batting stance, his range, how he strides to the ball, or how he will stride to the Hall. Let’s just hope he saunters, not staggers, to immortality.
Feel free to email me: Jakster1@mac.com
Does Jeter have anything left in the tank? Fire away in the comments below…