I originally started out this piece of writing by talking about franchise players in professional sports, and what having a ‘face of the franchise’ means to an organization, a city, the fans, etc. Through two or three different iterations of the opening, I realized that’s not what I was really trying to write about at all.
During the 2014 MLB season, one of the first players I can personally remember play professional baseball hung his cleats up for good. It was a sad process having to come to grips with the realization, but almost equal parts joy and relief that ‘your guy’ got to walk away from the game (mostly) healthy and without too many career blemishes from sticking around too long. In a lot of ways, he transcended what it means to be the face of the franchise. Having been a fan my entire life, I can almost without a doubt say that when I think about the New York Yankees, my mind will always come back to Derek Jeter.
So what hasn’t been said about the guy already? His 'victory lap' this last season was, at times, a bit over the top. The Nike ads, Sports Illustrated spreads, typical ESPN drowning you in it… it’s all been said, I get it. But something in me will always feel like I didn’t get in on the farewell, to really just say goodbye in my own nonsensical way. As such, this is my opportunity to put into eternal scripture my parting thoughts on the guy that gave me a wholehearted appreciation for a game I might not otherwise give two shits about.
Jeter was drafted at the 6 slot in the 1992 MLB draft (I went back and looked at the 5 people drafted in front of him so I could write how they all washed up within 3 years and were never heard from again -nope. Two all-stars in there, and who the hell knew: Johnny Damon was drafted in the same year?!). About being drafted by the Yankees: “It’s all I ever wanted, so I couldn’t picture anything else. It was perfect how it worked out.”
I’m not sure anyone, especially George Steinbrenner, could have put it any better: a Michigan native but lifelong Yankee fan goes on to haul in 14 All-Star selections and spend his entire 20 season career on the same damn squad, just one year short of The Iron Man, Cal Ripken Jr. He leaves the league as the last player drafted in the 90’s to have played for only one team. David Ortiz has been on the Red Sox since April 2003 – notable only because Ortiz’s 12 seasons now takes over as THE longest tenure in the majors on one team (though drafted by Minnesota). How’s that for perspective - 20 years on one team - unbelievable, really.
The picture above is, more or less, one of the first memories forged in my brain of my childhood and the Yankees. At the time I just thought he was kind of a beast - in retrospect… he took the league by storm. In 1996, you hang up a Rookie of the Year honor and top it off with Mariah Carey?! 22 years old – that’s just absolutely absurd. And yet at the same time, that relationship represents everything that Jeter wasn’t over his 20 year career. Think about it - how did he not turn out more like Alex Rodriguez, i.e. self-centered, self-conscious, desperate for attention, always trying to live up to your own legacy? It defies odds to me, and it’s not like he started to date anyone less high-profiled thereafter – Miss. Universe Lara Dutta, Jessica Alba, Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Biel… are you kidding me? In a league marred by steroid scandal after scandal, the pure accomplishment of staying in the kind of the spotlight that doesn’t land you on the front page of the papers for all the wrong reasons really says a lot about a guy with so much to talk about off the field.
Though statistically his defense was suspect at times in the many stages of his career, his patented jump-throw to first will always stand out to me. I’m a realist when it comes to his style of play – I understand that Jeter historically wasn’t anything to write home about at the shortstop position. But play me a round of “The Flip” from the 2001 ALDS or even the regular season dive into the stands, and all is forgiven in my mind. Give me the moments I’ll never forget, and I’ll grant you enough forgiveness as a fan to not care about analytics enthusiasts trying to drown you in sabermetrics. When it mattered most, Jeter was there, or rather was there just enough not to be remembered for any notable blunders when the game was on the line.
In the end, I’ll stick with the guy who brought me far more ups than downs, regardless of stats. In 2012, I was at a bar watching the ALCS when Jeter broke his ankle, and I’ll never forget the nauseous feeling that came over me. The pain on his face when he went down… I legitimately felt that. That was the beginning of the end – he was never truly the same after that. And looking back, that moment of which I will never forget, in a way epitomized his career: the heartache along the way (e.g. the absolute gut punch that was the 2004 ALCS) coupled by occasional post-season heroics and five world championship rings (plus a World Series MVP). That moment of agony, him lying on the ground for what seemed like a decade for him to get helped off the field… just a couple weeks after becoming the second oldest player in major league history to lead the league in hits at 38 years old. The highs and the lows – if you remember them all but appreciate them all the same, it’s hard to look back with any sort of remorse or regret.
Yet one of the biggest regrets I’ll walk away with from this final season with the Yankees is not having attended one last game with The Captain on the field. I’ve only seen him a couple times in person, far too long ago to remember the details (aside from the ass I made of myself at 11 years old wondering (very) aloud why Ken Griffey Jr. wasn’t playing when we were actually playing the Marlins, not the Mariners). I’ll always have his poster, the #2 jersey, the now virtually worthless trading cards, but what’s more: I’ll always have the memories. And in some sort of extremely roundabout way I think I’ve been able to even answer my own question about what it means to be the franchise player: leave the game with as much passion as you came in with, be remembered for all the right reasons, and have a couple signature moments – shit, maybe even a signature play. That’s what Derek Jeter means to me.