The MLB regular season is drawing to a close, and neither my Reds nor my Yankees, the two teams that I fanatically support, will be in the playoffs. It’s been a disappointing season for both, with injuries and players not living up to their potential. But what I’m most upset about is the fact that Derek Jeter will be riding off into the sunset without even making it back into the postseason. When the team was officially eliminated earlier this week, he deflected questions about his retirement. He was concentrating on the fact that the team, collectively, hadn’t been good enough to squeak into the second wild card spot. He talked about how it wasn’t about him, how it was about the team’s inability to get the job done in the clutch, regardless of injuries or any other excuses. It was typical of him to say what he did. He understands, and always has, that as great as he’s been individually, it’s really all about the pinstripes. It’s really all about the Yankees, the greatest dynasty in American sports.
Still, in his last game at Yankee Stadium, against the A.L. East winning Orioles, he couldn’t deflect the attention from himself anymore. The sold out crowd had come to pay respects…and ticket prices of not less than $300 a pop, for the nosebleeds, no less…to him, not so much to the Yankees. After all, the team was out; they had basically nothing to play for. The crowd was chanting the shortstop’s name, the forty year old man with the heart of a kid, from Kalamazoo, Michigan, even as they filed into the building. Plainly, it made him uncomfortable. You could see that in his face and body language as he took the field for the final time in the Bronx. He didn’t want it to be all about him, but yet it was, all about his twenty-year career, five World Championships, Silver Slugger awards, All Star selections, his many, many, memorable plays…how could it not be about the Captain? This was the guy who was not just the last of the core four, Posada, Pettite, and Rivera having retired before him, this was the very last guy from the dynasty years, the championship teams of ’96, ’98, ’99, and 2000. The years that I first really started watching the Yankees and became a fan, even though I was living in Cincinnati at the time. There was something about those teams, something besides the winning, I mean, that captured my attention, and there was something about Derek specifically that captured it too. I’d always been a fan of the shortstop position. The athletic ability you need to have to play there, you don’t really need to be the biggest and strongest, but you do need to be the most cerebral; you need to think on your feet. That’s why I counted Barry Larkin and “The Wizard,” Ozzie Smith, among my favorites already. But I was hardly alone in liking Jeter, not then, when he was a younger player, and not in the more recent stages of his career. You would see the number two pinstriped jersey everywhere, not just in New York. He was officially named the Captain in Cincinnati in 2003, but even before that, it was clear this was a guy born to lead, someone with a quiet confidence, not a cheerleader in the rah-rah kind of sense, but more a teammate that led by example and always knew what to say to the guy who was down in the dumps, stuck in an 0 for 24 skid, or to be the first one on the top step of the dugout to congratulate a rookie who had just gotten his first hit. Because he could remember when that had been him. Because that was the kind of player, and person, he was.
So it must have been emotional for him Thursday night, that last night in the Bronx. It was for the near fifty thousand in attendance, and that was even before the Captain stroked a one-out RBI single to win the game in the bottom of the ninth, after David Robertson had blown the save by giving up three runs in the top of the frame. I was pissed when Robertson blew that save and I had turned the TV off and gone to bed with the score tied, so I missed seeing the game-winning hit live. That’s okay. I was kicking myself a little the next day, but I saw the replay. And I had only gone to bed because I had work early the next morning. Work, responsibilities…the kind of thing that sports distracts you from. And ultimately, that is Derek Jeter’s legacy to me. He was the greatest ambassador to one of my favorite sports that I’ve ever known, and sports are and remain for me the most pleasant of distractions, bittersweet, because you live and die, rise and fall, with your team, and with your favorite players. Like Derek Jeter, a guy whose jersey I own, who I named my cat after, the guy who I’ve watched and admired, live and in person and on TV, for the past twenty years, along with an entire generation who grew up with the kid from Kalamazoo. I never got to see Ruth or Gehrig or Dimaggio, but I did get to see one of the greats. Best of his generation, first ballot Hall of Famer, all around class act, Mr. New York. Farewell Captain. It goes without saying that I’ll miss you. The team, and the game, just won’t be the same without you.