Derek Jeter prepares for his final game of his career. (Photo: Greg M. Cooper, USA TODAY Sports)
Derek Jeter hit just one grand slam in his 20-year major league career. He never won a batting title or was the American League MVP. When baseball’s calibrators apply advanced metrics to his numbers, this made-for-marketing sendoff brought on spiked levels of snark and cynicism. It’s now to the point that adults who mourn the career passing of the sporting gods of their youth have been almost embarrassed into owning up to their warped sense of idolatry.
“Stop already! He’s a 40-year-old Yankee shortstop, for God’s sake, not any kind of historically important American.”
And that’s where the jaded among us got it wrong, of course, because Jeter is historically important.
He’s the last iconic American athletic hero who didn’t let us down.
Crunching his numbers before his last at-bat Sunday at Fenway Park, we forget the only ones that mattered:
• In an era of increasing criminal behavior off the field in all sports, Jeter never once was in trouble with the law.
• During two decades of his peers putting syringes in their buttocks and special pills on their tongues, Jeter never once was connected to performing-enhancing drug use — not in a Mitchell report, not in a Jose Canseco tell-all book, not even in casual conversation among the game’s closest observers who might have had an inkling.
• In a tabloid town where everyone is eventually found out, Jeter never once detonated his personal life. Perhaps realizing even the best major league husband was still going to be away half the time, he remained Manhattan’s most eligible bachelor. He dated some of the world’s most stunning and famous women, none of whom ended up telling Oprah what a bad person he was.
• He never once judged Alex Rodriguez, which made you realize even more why he wasn’t A-Rod.
What the jaded fail to realize is Jeter wasn’t just Captain Clutch, winning five World Series with the Yankees, delivering that Disneyesque walk-off, game-winning RBI on Thursday night in his last at-bat at Yankee Stadium that still feels so surreal 48 hours later.
He was much more.
He was a biracial Chip Hilton, Clair Bee’s fictional literary star. Jeter was a humble, 1950s Pleasantville kid with dimples playing in the social-media spotlight of 2014.
Life didn’t imitate central casting; Jeter imitated it.
In one-run playoff games and mid-July blowouts, he stood on the top step of the dugout with the boyish exuberance of an 8-year-old with a baseball card collection and a mother who had just finishing passing out half-filled Dixie cups of Kool-Aid.
In New York they mourn the end of his career because Jeter was the last remnant from the Yankees’ Core Four. Along with Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada — all of whom hugged him along with Joe Torre after his walk-off Thursday night — he was a link to a time when the Yankees developed homegrown stars into World Series champions, before overpaying for talent in the Bronx came back into vogue.
In soul and deed, he was their captain just as Babe Ruth, Thurman Munson, Graig Nettles, Lou Gehrig and Don Mattingly were once their captains.
But nationally Jeter carried his own importance. He filled up a vacuum for those of us who still need to find comfort in sustained professional excellence. I still have a Sports Illustrated with the three greatest winners of my adolescence on the cover — Joe Montana, Magic Johnson and Wayne Gretzky.
In the late 1990s, Jeter could have been on a cover featuring Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, and in the mid-2000s he could have occupied a cover with Tom Brady and Kobe Bryant. He’s as old as he is contemporary, bisecting generations of the greatest American sports stars of the last 20 years.
That he didn’t fall prey to synthetic chemicals like Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong and so many others, that he didn’t end up indelibly hurting himself and others off the field like Woods, that he didn’t have a forgettable last chapter in another town like Jordan or Brett Favre — that even in decline no one ever believed Jeter needed the game more than it needed him — just made his legend grow.
He wasn’t the greatest Yankee ever, but along with Gehrig he may go down as the most uncompromised and beloved.
Yes, he won and made memories on the field. But he also made good choices off of it.
In an era where branding the individual has become a literal pastime for today’s stars, Jeter never even got a tattoo.
From 1995 till Sunday, he remained the ultimate team player, able to submerge his own ego for the good of the group.
People who flocked to see him this last week weren’t recording video of an otherworldly athlete with their iPhones, someone they remembered hitting three home runs in one game like Reggie Jackson; they were chronicling the end of something deeper, a visage of what made baseball the national pastime before the NFL hurdled it, a player who always tried to get two, and never made the dumb play.
We have become so anti-hero nowadays it’s almost required to find out what a player can’t do as opposed to what he can. Much of this can be traced to the widening financial and personal chasm between the average fan and the superstar athlete, and the toxic, acerbic world this snark-filled profession has become.
We get angrier now at those who forget they are making fortunes playing the game we would give our appendix to play and we have more venues to vent than our fathers and grandfathers did.
So when one of them does genuinely appreciate their life and career, we intuitively need to stand and salute.
Because Jeter gets us; he understands the abiding affection we have for the game on such visceral levels. We know — don’t we — that he is the rare player who loved the game as much as we did, that he probably would have played it for much less money and fame.
When so many of his peers in baseball and beyond could not keep our trust, he always managed to deliver. We don’t mourn a player’s retirement; we mourn the last great athlete of his generation to hold up his part of the bargain. We mourn the rarest of commodities in big-time professional sports — Derek Jeter, the lone athletic hero not to let us down.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.