By Jason Keidel
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Despite declarations and docudramas to the contrary, New York City was a wondrous place in the 1970s for many kids who were weaned on the Melting Pot, reared on real diversity before it became a pompous, corporate mantra.
I grew up in a place once called Park West Village – a series of seven, faded, redbrick buildings from 97th to 100th Streets on the West Side of Manhattan – where we didn’t care what you looked like or what money your parents made or about the contours of your crib. Could you play? That’s all that mattered. When it was time to pick a team it was your game – not your name – that mattered. Only as adults do we engage in the bitter rituals of racism, sexism, ageism and every other “ism” that causes a societal schism.
Like many New Yorkers at the time, I was nursed on the Bronx Zoo, spellbound by the Yankees from the moment I saw Reggie Jackson blast three homers off three pitches from three pitchers. I chomped on his chocolate bars and tossed the orange wrappers onto a mountain of them created by the other kids somewhere in the shade or shadow of Central Park. I turned eight in 1977, and my only concern that summer was procuring the next quarter for the same snack.
Forget the mundane metrics about “True Yankees” for a moment. Jackson was the Yankees at that time, and I didn’t want him to get old. Later on, I hated to see Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield get old. But they did. And I do. And you do. Not even Derek Jeter can counter the calendar. Utopian mantras aside, there’s a universal truth that evens all scores – time, which renders age and wage, that fantasy killer who knocks on every door, even Derek’s.
The Yankees were 14-4 while Jeter was injured, and are 1-3 since he returned. He’s gone 4-for-18 (.222) in those games. His return is not the reason they haven’t won, of course, but it brings to light the great debate.
It’s either leadoff or sendoff, first or ninth, a very stark separation and domino effect, as there are no gray areas with Jeter. And some of us – treasonous to the core you’d say – dare to declare that Brett Gardner should be the leadoff hitter because he’s younger, faster, gets on base more often, and steals more bases.
We all know what Derek Jeter means to so many of you. Jeter played the game with the grace of a legend and the grit of a little leaguer. No matter how many million-dollar checks he cashed he always felt a debt to his team and his town. His visage is assured on racks and plaques across the land, his name burned into myriad ballparks, from Monument Park to Yellowstone Park.
Before you insist that I desist from the Haterade, let me remind you that I am a Yankees fan, and that I’m rather aware of No. 2 and his import, his status as baseball’s Captain America. But the 3,000 hits just don’t hit me hard, as he was never about the numbers and hence stamping a stat on him feels incongruous, and as an anomaly, too, as many Yankees better than Jeter just didn’t last long enough to make the milestone.
If it’s a matter of etiquette, then the Yankees are doing the right thing by letting Jeter hit first and hope for a burst to hit No. 3,000. Let him end the chase where it began, always near or at the top of the lineup. The symbolism is perfect, even if the impact on the team is imperfect. The Yanks can afford a gaffe or two to honor No. 2. But then what? Do you keep him there or properly insert his replacement (Gardner) in the leadoff spot? Again, let’s just say we’re thrilled not to have to make that call.
From Chuck Noll to Joe Torre to Joe Girardi, It’s almost universally agreed that the hardest job a boss has is to sort or sit an aging icon. And for you, the fan, the Derek devotee who suffers from a rehearsed form of Derek dementia, you writhe even more. To those of us who have breached 40, we understand this generational baton passed impeccably down the decades.
And thus this generation has Jeter, and you cling to him like a branch above lava. But try to resist your impulse to pity the man. His work has not been that of charity. He could win the lotto and call it a pay cut. He’s 37, movie star handsome, can pick his next (or no) gig, has another 50 years in the tank, and nine-digits in the bank. When his current contract ends, he will have made over a quarter-billion bucks to be the shortstop, leadoff hitter, leading man, captain, and avatar of the greatest team in the history of team sports.
To the 25-year-old, Jeter is all you’ve known, the dynastic emblem of your childhood. He has no candy bar, but he’s no less a star. Not now…but someday…you’ll realize it’s not Jeter you miss but rather what he represents – your youth, a time when you thought good times were eternal.
Feel free to email me: Jakster1@mac.com
Do you think the Yankees should drop Jeter in the lineup after he hits No. 3,000? Let Keidel know in the comments below…