By Jason Keidel
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Boxing is the worst sport for the aging icon in repose. When you lose your quickness, the special synapse that made you duck the uppercut or slip the left hook, you find yourself sprawled across the canvas, twitching, your mouthpiece hurled a few feet from your chalked out silhouette.
Rocky Marciano cried when he literally blasted Joe Louis out of the ring. Later the dim lights of dementia fell upon the American immortal, who was all too mortal. Louis, who did everything we ask of our heroes, from handling himself with innate decency to serving in the military during his prime while men of color were treated as poorly as prisoners of war, was mauled by Uncle Sam, drained of his money, mobility, and nobility by the IRS, forced into the quick cash of ugly wrestling exhibitions and humiliated as a casino greeter, relegated to a photo op, grip-and-grin muppet for the mob.
Derek Jeter need not worry about any of that. His age and wage make him the toast of Anytown, USA, the envy of pimpled teens and titans of industry alike. No matter his place along the Mendoza Line, his legacy is laminated.
But how will it end for Jeter? Will his last season be his worst?
Going into Monday night’s game, Jeter was toiling in an 0-for-13 swamp, and surely winced while watching his batting average plunge from .294 on April 25 down to .240, along with an anorexic .271 slugging percentage. (His two hits last night nudged the needle up to .250.)
And whenever a vocational graybeard, particularly one of Jeter’s heft, slides down the leaderboard, it’s impossible not to tie his diamond deeds to another troubling number: 40. That will be the Captain’s age next month. Forty is a dour emblem for an athlete. Unless you’re George Foreman or Mariano Rivera, age hangs over a proud athlete like toxic dust.
Ivan Nova is done for the year. After a promising start, Michael Pineda has been humiliated by pine tar and humbled by the injury bug. CC Sabathia has done nothing to disprove the notion that he’s no longer an ace. Hiroki Kuroda is finally showing his age. Masahiro Tanaka is the only bejeweled starter who’s pitching like a certified, frontline starter.
The Bronx Bombers are hardly hitting up to their moniker. Ichiro has sipped from the fountain of youth, but Jacoby Ellsbury is the only non-geriatric regular batting over .300. They are fourth in the AL in average but just 10th in runs scored.
And then there’s Jeter’s numbers. Though much of his vocational and personal charm is the fact that he’s not defined by stats, perhaps no player in any sport takes more pride in his public and professional persona than Jeter. So while he embarks on his farewell tour, collecting the comedic, geriatric doodads from his foes, it surely irks Jeter to find his stats well south of his normal, Cooperstown metric.
Nothing can erase the divine montage of memories, from the flip to home plate to the first November homer to lunging into the stands for a foul ball. But Jeter is hailed for the twin virtues of being the leading man on baseball’s leading franchise, his high deeds under brown leaves keeping the Yanks on their ancestral perch as perennial winners.
You could argue that Jeter’s de facto finale came on that cold night in he Bronx, when his reliable limbs finally betrayed him. Lurching to the right to field a ground ball, as he had countless thousands of times, his ankle snapped. And it’s obvious Jeter hasn’t been the same since that ALCS game against Detroit. At least he fell on his symbolic sword during the month he made his own, frosty stage: October.
Jeter’s fellow “Core Four” monolith, Mariano Rivera, somehow recovered from his seemingly fatal knee injury in Kansas City. Part of that is attributable to Rivera’s superhuman physical and metaphysical wares. But he was also a pitcher who threw for an inning or so a few times a week. Jeter is limping around at the most taxing position on the diamond (after catcher). No matter how many times Joe Girardi cuffs Jeter to the bench for a forced day off, he can’t fix Father Time’s inexorable toll.
Fortunately for Jeter and the Yankees, the AL East is largely allergic to winning records. Despite having the same record (16-15) as the Mets, the Yanks are in second place, fractions behind Baltimore. So maybe they have one more October run left in their brittle legs.
We haven’t always agreed on Jeter. The jaded, Jeter apologists who think Jeter and Jesus are essentially branches on the same family tree, can’t accept anything other than unfiltered adulation. I’ve been branded all manner of moron for just suggesting the shortstop is human. Some of us could do without his scripted platitudes and eternal monotone. Some of us like our heroes flawed, some assurance that their blood runs red, like the rest of us.
But beyond any cosmetic differences we’ve had over the years, there’s no denying Jeter’s place in the pinstriped pantheon. Five years to the minute after his retirement, Jeter will join his single-digit predecessors in Cooperstown, and eventually buttressed against The Babe in Monument Park.
But the last year or so has taught us that even the baseball gods retire their sons, that all stars and All-Stars die. Even Derek Jeter, who, we hope, still has a few flashes to remind us of when No. 2 was No. 1.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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