By Jason Keidel
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When it comes to Derek Jeter, we haven’t always been simpatico.
Everyone gets his gravitas in New York and the world west of the Hudson. But some of us prefer our heroes to be a bit more candid, more open; unafraid to show their scars and stripes.
Jeter has guarded his persona with the care afforded a newborn. He gives the template answers, speaks in corporate clichés and has no interest in being intimate. The relationship is strictly professional. No kissing, as it were.
And when I brand him anything but perfect, my Twitter and email accounts boil with profanity from fans who can’t spell objective, much less fathom it. It’s not enough to regard him as a first-ballot legend whose No. 2 will round out the regal, single-digit monoliths in Yankees uniforms. To them, he’s not godlike. He is the actual deity.
But he got his due on Tuesday night, even if it embarrassed the laconic, iconic Yankee, whose career has been so pristine that you can’t find a hater in the nouveaux, social-media world of haters. Not even Boston, with a predisposed allergy to pinstripes, despises Jeter.
So no matter how or when or where they honor the captain, it will be a moment for the archives. The wide bottleneck of his career spans multiple baseball generations. Mike Trout, widely considered the best player in the sport, was five years old when Jeter won Rookie of the Year in 1996. A New Jersey native, Trout mused profoundly on the moment when one of his heroes played his last All-Star Game.
You know his stance. Like all hitters, he’s got the neurotic routine; the way he peels and plies the Velcro straps on his gloves, softly twirls the bat and slowly raises his right hand toward the umpire, as if balancing a butterfly on his wrist.
Jeter is the rare player who not only owns the laundry and the industry, but also a piece of our lives. It’s not just Jeter, of course, but what he represents. He doubles as a time portal for all mortals.
How old were you in 1996? How much has your life mutated since he was that clean-cut, preteen face of the franchise? Could anyone have known Jeter would become, well, Jeter?
And it leads us to introspection. Since 1996, how many relationships have you had? Marriages? How many times has your heart been broken? How many jobs? Kids? How many times have you thrown the remote at your television, acted like a primate in front of people over a damn game?
How many games did you attend with your dad? Who introduced you to baseball? And how did you introduce it to your offspring? Do you tell your kids the same recycled assertions you so loathed in your old man? Are your father-son anecdotes eerily similar to the bromides your father belched?
Were you a Yankees fan because your dad was? Is your kid a fan because you are? Or because of Derek Jeter? Does your son have a singular Jeter moment, like the preteen epiphany you had when Reggie Jackson swatted those three homers in ’77? Is your kid experiencing the same, forlorn feeling you had when Donnie Baseball left for good? When Reggie left for California? When Mantle had his number retired?
And there’s a sadness to it. Not only is Jeter leaving for good, but he takes with him the remnants of the Core Four, and the final baton to the glory days, the Torre days.
Joe Girardi was there, in ’96. Indeed, WFAN host Mike Francesa said the loudest he ever heard Yankee Stadium was that frosty night in ’96 when G.I. Joe hit that triple off Greg Maddux in Game 6, rounding the bases in painful procession to the volcanic joy of 50,000 fans in the Bronx. But Joe is not Jeter, and doesn’t have the historical or emotional hold over our lives.
The beauty of baseball is the zero-sum finality of its numbers. Jeter has entered the sacred, top 10 all-time hits club. He has 3,408 hits, and the people he’s passed are a conga line of immortals. Willie Mays. George Brett. Lou Brock. Rod Carew. Roberto Clemente. And, of course, the recently departed Tony Gwynn, who regarded his craft and his sport with just as much class, talent and temerity as Jeter.
And those in front of Jeter are a list of luminaries reserved for mythology, spawned by that iconic cornfield in Iowa. Cobb. Speaker. Wagner. Aaron. Musial. When you talk in those iconic tones, then your career kinda speaks for itself.
And this stat might trump the others. Since his debut, 493 different players have started at SS in MLB, according to the FOX broadcast on Tuesday night.
And it’s fitting that Jeter is the last one, as he ushered in the dynasty and will lead us off stage. The Yankees, as we know and adore them, are gone.
It’s almost impossible to tell the difference between friend, family and ballplayer. After a while, they become one, even if Jeter always kept us at arm’s length. Even a player of Jeter’s polish has a few streaks, cracks and flaws. One thing Jeter never understood is that a hero’s gaffes can be as gripping as his gifts.
He’s been so close to perfect that you can understand why he thinks it’s attainable. But if the last few years have shown us anything, it’s that Derek Jeter is not flawless.
His limbs snapped like a cracked bat. His numbers plunged. His hairline has inched back into his baseball cap. He’s no longer that kid from Kalamazoo, no longer riding the high wave of unlimited success, breathing that thin air from Trump’s penthouse and viewing the island as the young prince he once was.
But Jeter should glide into retirement with the aged elegance of Julius Erving and Hank Aaron, the ones who look exponentially younger than the age etched on their cards and act with rare, refined air. Jeter is a living legend, a perch not often visited in sports.
We always confuse the latest with the greatest. Since Derek Jeter is our icon we assume he was the best. He’s not Joe D. He’s not Mantle. And he’s surely not Ruth.
But in the epoch of TMZ, of endless “gotcha” moments on eternal loop, Jeter has managed to become king of New York without ever scratching his crown. That is even more impressive than his over-3,400 hits, the championships or the line of runway models he’s led to his lair.
We may see more talented players than Jeter. Heck, Trout is already a better ballplayer and Miguel Cabrera is twice the hitter. But we won’t ever see this amalgam of deeds and dignity, a confluence of timing and talent and town.
Leadership and nobility don’t appear in a box score, even if they are the reasons you won a given game. Even if he’s not from New York City, Jeter has the key to our city, and to our sense of baseball in it.
It’s time we tip our caps to the captain. Few Yankees — few humans — deserve it more. Millions of moms and dads, and even baseball deities, know royalty when they see it, and we’ve seen it since 1996.
In his own regal way, No. 2 is indeed No. 1.
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