By Jason Keidel
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This week Derek Jeter spent a few minutes with Mike Francesa for a quick trip back to the glory days. It’s perhaps the last time he will jam to the oldies until he retires this fall.
And it occurred to me that Jeter is the final furlong of the Joe Torre dynasty; not just the last of the Core Four, but also the final link to the legendary ’90s teams. If memory serves, he’s the only active Yankee who played in the only Yankee Stadium, which is now pummeled to dust, a vacant lot filled with fossils and memories and memoirs.
We’ve had our spats over Jeter. Not his numbers, his high deeds under brown leaves or his angelic, public persona. My beef with the transcendent shortstop was the cold corporate space he kept between himself and the fans, his allergy to repeat anything other than his daily, scripted platitudes. He wanted us to believe he was never particularly hurt, haunted or happy. He controlled the dialogue and the depths we could venture into his soul.
Fans almost universally agree that Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan belong on the Mt. Rushmore of American sports. While they couldn’t be more different in appearance or persona, one thematic thread runs through them: Each had some demons dancing through their lives. And like them, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, and Walter Payton were haunted by private struggles.
We worship an icon in his totality, and are often drawn to his gifts and his gaffes. Supremacy comes with a tax. Jordan gambled. Ali had a harem while married and painted Joe Frazier in racially repugnant tones. Ruth’s peripheral appetites are legendary, from food to women to whiskey. WIlliams was notoriously nasty to nearly everyone, including his wives and children. Mantle was Mantle. Even the sainted Payton had an endless script of painkillers long after his NFL career.
But Jeter has maintained a spiritual secrecy that should be impossible, especially in the new world of social media, a cauldron of parasites ready to find the slightest flaw in otherwise flawless athletes.
Tiger Woods was supposed to be that guy, the chiseled golfer with a savant’s swing, impenetrable game and obdurate heart whose red-sweater Sundays had become as indelible as the Ali Shuffle. Then it all fell apart one November night, when his wife went Richie Incognito on his vehicle, and thus the flood gates opened to all manner of lascivious leanings.
So it is just Jeter who somehow remained an arm’s length from exposure, scandal and the public stains of celebrity. While his instincts were sublime, he did have some help.
Remember, Jeter arrived before the onslaught of social media, when the Internet was a fledgling, dial-up endeavor that took about 10 minutes to load a single page. (Remember when AOL was about the only option for email? When Internet providers bombed your mailbox with CDs, begging you to take MindSpring over AOL?)
Not only did Jeter have a head start on the ravenous, TMZ types, but he was also blessed to come from a fine family, and then a divine dugout, where he was mentored by Torre — to whom Jeter still refers in paternal tones — and a conga line of leaders in the clubhouse.
Jeter didn’t start his career as Captain America. He was cuddled and coddled by a village of solid citizens, from Paul O’Neill to Bernie Williams to Cecil Fielder to Wade Boggs to Tim Raines. There were Jimmy Key, David Cone, John Wetteland and, yes, his current commander, Joe Girardi. Jeter could not have been reared by a more regal or centered baseball family.
Remember that the Yankees weren’t really Jeter’s team until 2003, when he became captain. Francesa argues that ’03 was the last year of the juggernaut, which pretty much dissolved after Josh Becket’s shutout on our soil in Game 6.
You could argue that no team, town and time were better suited for a player than New York City, the Yankees and 1996 were for Jeter. He was the product of a different time, and he helped define the times.
So will we ever see another Jeter? Will there every be another household name with his house in such impeccable order? There will be other All-Stars, but not All-Stars who have Jeter’s instincts, who played with the grace of an icon and the grit of a Little Leaguer. It’s hard to imagine a similar confluence of timing and talent in any city, particularly New York City.
There’s no debate that No. 2 is No.1 for an entire generation of New Yorkers, New Jerseyans and Americans. Jeter is the apple-pie emblem of our pastime. Just as Jerry West was the silhouette logo of the NBA, you could argue that Jeter’s profile — his chin tucked over his left shoulder — is the contemporary avatar of MLB. And he did it sans steroids, which only adds to his teflon resume.
While the Yankees keep proving that you can’t buy supremacy, if they continue to flex their checkbooks they should remain relevant. For every Kei Igawa they will buy a Bryan McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Masahiro Tanaka. Forbes just branded the Yanks baseball’s most valuable franchise, again, at about $2.5 billion, still ahead of the Dodgers, who were valued at about $2 billion.
So Jeter isn’t leaving the Yankees bankrupt in the box office, at the bottom of the standings or lacking in brand recognition. But he is the official end of an epoch, when baseball, the New York Yankees and particularly New York City were more mysterious and original.
And just as the five boroughs are no longer a marvel of madness and anonymity,Jeter is our last secret star, whom we knew to the extent he allowed. He’s so guarded that he demands his houseguests drop their gadgets into a basket by the door,to be retrieved upon exiting his latest pied-a-terre. His cavernous mansion in Florida is so vast they’ve sardonically labeled it St. Jetersburg.
The fact that Jeter did so much while revealing so little might be annoying, but it’s clearly a miracle. His final lap around the majors will make him twitch, as he abhors the rabid and rampant self-aggrandizement that comes with farewell tours. Each stop will pop open a pinata of doodads spilling over his rocking chair, fishing rod or fiber pills.
Jeter will just have to accept it. He’s been painfully awkward and uncomfortable with attention because he felt it compelled him to reciprocate, to return the love and candor that you have lavished upon him.
He’s the ultimate pragmatist. As evidenced by the duplicate “first-time” love baskets he allegedly once gave a woman, romance and sentimentality aren’t the spiritual skin tags necessary for success. He’s somehow remained both cold and cuddly for 20 years. And I still have no idea how he did it.
And while more than a few of us think he owes you more than he’s given, he’s earned the right to retire on his terms. Lord knows, there may be another player of Jeter’s prowess on the diamond, but it’s hard to imagine such a bejeweled and beguiling life off the field.
No matter how you parse his particulars, it’s hard to argue Jeter wasn’t, isn’t and won’t be No. 1 for a long time, even if he prefers No. 2.
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