Thursday, February 13, 2014

There will never be a Yankee that mattered more than Derek Jeter

No one was ever more the face of the Yankees, was more important to their brand, than Jeter has been since he ran out to shortstop for good one April afternoon in 1996.

By Mike Lupica
February 12, 2014

Derek Jeter, working out in Tampa Wednesday ahead of spring training, says his recent injury woes help him decide to end his career after one more season in pinstripes.


Derek Jeter, working out in Tampa Wednesday ahead of spring training, says his recent injury woes help him decide to end his career after one more season in pinstripes.

In so many ways, there has not been a Yankee who mattered more to the Yankees than Derek Jeter, not since Babe Ruth.

This does not make Jeter bigger than Ruth in either baseball talent, or accomplishments. It does not make him a better player than the great Mariano Rivera was a closer, does not mean he was more of a combination of skill and grace than Joe DiMaggio. Does not mean he ever thrilled people on a ballfield the way Mickey Mantle did when he was young, before injury stole so much from Mantle across all his own Yankee summers and alcohol did its job on him at night.

But in the modern world, and that really means the Yankee universe of the past 20 years, no one was ever more the face of the Yankees, was more important to their brand, than Jeter has been since he ran out to shortstop for good one April afternoon in 1996.

In all the big ways then, No. 2 has been the one.

He announces now that this coming season will be his last, and really tells you all about the modern world, and not just in baseball, by making that announcement with a Facebook post. Jeter does this before another spring training, officially his last, begins for the Yankees on the other side of Florida from where it all began for him in Fort Lauderdale a long time ago.

“I’ve experienced so many defining moments in my career,” he wrote Wednesday. “Winning the World Series as a rookie shortstop, being named the Yankees captain, closing the old and opening the new Yankee Stadium. Through it all, I’ve never stopped chasing the next one. I finally want to stop the chase and take in the world.”

There have been so many Yankee stars, of course. Ruth was the great star of all sports once, in the Roaring Twenties, such a golden age of sports because of him and Lou Gehrig and Red Grange and Jack Dempsey. Then came DiMaggio and Mantle and Yogi and Whitey Ford, the best Yankee starting pitcher of all time.

But Jeter has been as much a star as any of them, in this time when the Yankees got big again, when sports has been bigger than ever. He has been the one honoring the history of the team as well as anybody ever had, with his own grace, being the kind of winner he is, and being something else, as meaningful as all the rest of it:

For two decades he was the Yankee that kids wanted to be.

You know the Yankees sell their history and tradition with both hands, in all possible ways, and try to buy more by overpaying all these free agents over the years. More than any of that, though, for these two decades, the best promotion they had was at shortstop. They just had to send Jeter out there day after day and summer after summer.

This is not to diminish what George Steinbrenner brought back to the Yankees with money and noise and all his Barnum flair; or what Joe Torre — “Mr. Torre” to Derek Jeter, always — did in the years when he was the top manager of any professional sports team; does not diminish the accomplishments of the other members of what we have called the Core Four — Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte.

But of all the Yankees in these years when the Yankees became the Yankees again, it was Jeter, No. 2, who was the one.

He acted the way old Yankee fans remembered the old Yankees acting. He was the kind of winner Yankee fans wanted their team to be. He was a member of five teams that won the World Series and played in two other Series, and now has more hits than any Yankee and has played in more games. When he got to 3,000 hits, he did it with Jeter style, putting one over the leftfield wall.

There was a time one year, when the Yankees were still on top of baseball, and I was with him at his locker as another postseason was about to begin and said to him, “This can’t go on for you like this forever.”

Jeter looked up and said, “Why not?”

There was another day, back in the ’90s, in the middle of what was the last Yankee dynasty, four World Series in five years and nearly a fifth until things fell apart against the Diamondbacks in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 in 2001. It was a Sunday morning, early, in the clubhouse at the old Stadium. I was sitting with David Cone having coffee and the door opened and here came Jeter.

Cone said “good morning” and Jeter said the same, and then smiled and disappeared into the trainer’s room. When he was gone, Cone said, “It’s good being Derek.”

The winning stopped until it started up again, briefly, in 2009. The free agents came and went with the Yankees and so many high-priced juicers you lose count of sometimes, to the point where you imagine someday an Old-Timers’ Day just for them. Through it all, there was Jeter, running out to shortstop day after day, leading off, hitting famous home runs and making famous flip plays and acting as if the first few rows of the stands were part of the field when he recklessly — and successfully — chased foul balls like he was willing to chase them all the way into the parking lot.

He wrote Wednesday of his dreams and how they all began with an empty canvas. Now there is one more summer, if his legs hold out, to fill in the last parts of that canvas, perhaps with one more rousing October.

But this announcement Wednesday made you remember one more moment of grace from him, in September 2008, when he was the one speaking for the Yankees and their fans, for the whole idea of the Yankees, on the night when they officially said goodbye to the old Stadium. He talked that night about taking memories across the street and saluted the fans he called “the greatest fans in the world.” Then he led his team on a lap around the old place.

Now he begins another victory lap, across one more baseball summer, the one during which he somehow turns 40. He wasn’t the all-time home run king and he didn’t hit in 56 straight games and he never won a Triple Crown the way Mantle did. Still: You add it all up today, you remember everything he has done on the field and everything he has meant off it, how much he did to make the Yankees the Yankees again, and you know there has never been a Yankee who mattered more. Or will ever matter this much again.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Uuuuuuuuuh, yeeeeeaaaaah,Mike. So much for Ruth, Gehrig,Tony Lazerri,and the rest of "Murderer's Row",Herb Pennock, Waite Hoyt, Miller Huggins,Lefty Gomez,Red Ruffing,Bill Dickey, Joe DiMaggio,King Kong Keller,Phil Rizzuto,Joe Gordon,Tommy Henrich,Allie Reynolds,Yogi Berra,Whitey Ford,Mickey Mantle,Hank bauer, Bill Skowron,Elston Howard,Thurman Munson,Reggie, Ron Guidry,Graig Nettles.

Not to mention some of his teammates,like Bernie Williams,Andy Pettitte,Tino Martinez,Jorge Posada,Paul O'Neill,Chuck Knoblauch,and Mariano Rivera.Remember them?

Lupica,you need to change your name to Loopy, as that is what you have gone.