By Jason Keidel
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What does it take to win in New York?
New Yorkers have the right to ask. Burn the back of the baseball cards before you enter, as your stats west of the Hudson are rarely precursors once you bite the Big Apple, a town that too often makes mice of men.
PHOTOS: Derek Jeter Through The Years
When we answer the question, we emerge with less of a physical portrait than a character profile. After scrambling for adjectives, we simply point to the Bronx and say, “Just look at Jeter.”
We can’t say exactly why Derek Jeter made it seem so easy. We only know that he did. Perhaps it’s because he played every game with the grace of a legend but the grit of a little leaguer. No matter how many million-dollar checks he cashed, he still felt a debt to the team and the fans.
And now, after all the glory and plaudits and parades, it’s time for Jeter to come home, for the Yankees to honor him, to retire his number, to remind you why No. 2 was No. 1 in your souls for so long. This is the rare, if not unique moment when being honored locally is even more rewarding that being honored nationally, or even universally. While Jeter is not on the Mount Rushmore of Yankees, he still belongs around the group, just below Ruth and Gehrig and Mantle and Joe D.
Jeter is certainly the best shortstop in club history, which is saying a lot about a heady group that includes a Hall of Fame huckleberry who called Jeter’s first few years. Indeed, Phil Rizzuto also loved to mimic Jeter’s epic flip to home plate against Oakland in the 2001 playoffs. No moment is more symbolic of Jeter’s instinct or intellect — a play that did not pop up in the box score, yet was more divine and sublime than any of his 3,465 hits.
You have his stance down pat: the way he peeled and wrapped the Velcro straps on his gloves, the way he raised his right arm toward the ump as he dug in, as though balancing a butterfly on his wrist. He was the prodigy and the progeny of fine parents. He quickly and quietly rose from kid to king of New York, baseball’s version of Captain America.
As with most icons, Jeter represents more than his number, position or team. Jeter was the fresh face of an era, coined “the Core Four,” the last dynasty baseball has known. Long before they morphed into the Evil Empire and tried to win with their wallet, Jeter was part of a fertile farm system, a glowing crop of players, sprinkled with perfect seasoning of seasoned vets, that won four World Series in five years.
Though Jeter has the numbers for Cooperstown, it’s hard to think of a player less defined by them. How many homers does he have? Or stolen bases? Or Gold Gloves? Does it matter? Jeter was known for his deeds under brown leaves. He was cool when the moments were hot, and hot when the weather was coolest.
Like the luminaries who preceded him, Jeter had his share of signature moments. For many it was the uncanny flip to catch Jeremy Giambi at home plate. For others, like yours truly, it was that sweaty July night in 2004 when he lunged into the stands to catch that foul ball, emerging with bumps and cuts swathed across his cherished high cheekbones. I was one of the lucky ones at that game, and about 10 yards from the play. It spoke to everything Jeter was about on the diamond, treating every play like his last, even an innocuous foul ball in the middle of an interminable season.
If it feels like every generation has a Yankees empire of their salad days. That’s because they do. Except for the ’80s, the Yankees won at least one World Series in every decade since the 1920s. And only until recently they did it the same, like the ’90s juggernaut that Jeter spearheaded — from the farm up.
And now that they’ve finally ditched the reckless business model that has failed them for most of the last 15 years and discarded Darth Vader’s mask, the Yankees are on the come again. And Jeter would like this club, filled with players of his ilk, young, eager, hungry and fun.
If you’re 30 years old, Jeter is all you’ve known, the dynastic emblem of your childhood. But someone once your age once wondered how life could continue after Ruth, forgetting about a guy named Gehrig, who was followed by DiMaggio, who was followed by Mantle. My pals and I were reared on the Bronx Zoo, nursed by “Reggie” candy bars and memories of three homers on three pitches from three pitchers.
And now it’s time for Jeter to come home, to join his single-digit brethren, from Nos. 3, 4, 5 and, of course, No. 6, his former and favorite skipper, Joe Torre, his surrogate baseball father. A most unlikely couple — the poster boy shortstop and the brooding manager, who had been fired three times and plucked off the recycle bin for one last shot at glory. Through some divine alchemy, they cashed in, proving both could bask in Broadway’s glow without burning in its glare. And thus the dynasty that those two men forged is now complete, and belongs to history.
How do you replace Jeter? You don’t. A kid will start at shortstop someday, roaming a sacred spot in the infield, and you will eventually forget. The old salt will keep the throne warm until someone else is ready.
Someday you’ll realize that it’s not Jeter you miss, but rather what he represents – your adolescence, a time when you thought good times were eternal. If you still miss him, look out to Monument Park, his new home in his old home, where he belongs.
Please follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel