I purposely stayed off Twitter tonight and just watched the last game Derek Jeter will play at Yankee Stadium. And I was not going to write about it either. What more could I possibly say that has not been said on both sides of the Derek Jeter narrative? Plus, I cannot passively talk about the evening because Derek Jeter has long been my favorite player, so that should excuse me for having too personal a view of what I saw tonight. But as most writers will tell you, the only way we can work out how we feel is to write it all out.
Being a Derek Jeter fan and a baseball writer has been like a thin piece of land that is the only divide between two oceans. One ocean sweeps toward you with over-ventilated god-making such as what Bob Costas and Jim Kaat did tonight on the broadcast. As I have written several times before, nobody is that saintly or should be exalted that highly over other mortals. Derek Jeter’s post season heroics can be explained because he had more opportunities than anyone who ever played the game. He was bound to succeed on some of those occasions.
The other body of water is made up of critics–those who write either in negative reaction to all the hyperbole (which I respect) and those who want to add to their street cred or make a name for themselves by not only tearing down this god-making narrative by statistics but also by coming up with hyperbole of their own as to why Jeter was not that great in the first place.
The latter body of critics are harder to respect and are often just as guilty on the polar opposite extreme as the god-makers. Even the much-respected Buster Olney fell prey to the temptation of blaming the entire Yankee season on Jeter in this past week. Seriously!? Did you watch this team play?
Standing on that thin piece of land, I have written thousands of words basically stating that nobody is as good as Derek Jeter has been exalted as being and at the same time, he has been much greater than the critics would want us to believe.
I pretty much know what I am talking about because I have watched him every time I could in the past twenty years. Since MLB.tv came along, that has been nearly every single game.
There have been plenty of players who were greater than Derek Jeter. He often was the third or fourth best player on his own teams through the years. His greatness and his Hall of Fame career really come from his metronome-like onslaught of playing day after day for most of his nineteen full seasons (I don’t count the cup of coffee season and I really shouldn’t count 2013) and being productive day after day, week after week and year after year.
Through the hyperbole, Kaat and Costas did come close to the essence of Jeter’s career by talking about how Jeter used the same model glove for twenty years and the same model bat. Nearly everything he did was dependable. Two-hundred hits? Sure. A .380 on-base percentage? Sure. A post season matching his in-season stats? Sure. He was always very good year after year after year.
Watching Jeter as much as I have, I understand that Jeter was limited in range at shortstop. It never took a genius to see that. The defensive numbers make sense. If his defensive metrics were baseline at least, he would have been closer to being the best shortstop ever.
But I will swear to this until I am out of breath or these fingers cannot type anymore: During the post season in the glory years and during a no-hitter or something like that, I wanted the opposing batter to hit the ball to Jeter. He would get the out. Yes, that is a fan talking, but there is something to being a fan who wants a ball in a big spot to be hit to that awful-fielding shortstop. He wasn’t that awful. Derek Jeter was not going to cough it up in a big spot. That meant something.
As much as Derek Jeter has been bashed–and believe me, it became a flood this year–why is it that his uniform jerseys outsell any others? Why is it that players from every team have been universal in their praise for him? Why is it that so many shortstops and other infielders want to wear Number 2 for their respective teams? It’s for much the same reason that my generation wanted to wear Number 7 or Number 24.
You cannot trust the hyperbolic god-making of people like Costas and others. They go way, way over the line in their effusiveness. I get that. But there is something there. There are his teammates that wanted him to succeed so badly tonight. There are a clubhouse full of Boston Red Sox players that were super happy for Jeter according to Pete Abraham.
Trying to find the real Derek Jeter is like sifting through tons of sand to find the gold nuggets. Once you dig through the hyperbole from both sides–through the god-making and those who hang up numbers to puncture his myth–you get to the gold that Derek Jeter was vastly respected by his peers and teammates and that just about everything in his career was as storybook as you could imagine.
But I have to be honest in the end that I was not thinking of any of those things when I was watching his last Yankee Stadium game while cringing at Costas and Kaat. I was watching my favorite player play for the last time in pinstripes. I just wanted him to do okay.
And okay he did and everything was perfect going into the top of the ninth. Others who will probably never wear pinstripes again like Hiroki Kuroda and Ichiro Suzuki had successful games and Derek Jeter had a hand in three of the Yankees’ five runs. It was perfect.
Unlike Dan Plesac (apparently), I was not hoping for a blown save so Jeter could get up again. I did not want to see him fail in his final Stadium at bat. Just a couple of nights ago, I watched him make the last out of a game that pretty much ended the season. I know Jeter isn’t the hitter he once was. I did not want him to bat again in the game.
And that’s why, when David Robertson coughed up the lead, while possibly playing his last game in pinstripes and ruining Kuroda’s start and ruining the scenario “I” wanted, I was about as mad as I’ve ever been watching a baseball game. I was furious. “He ruined it! Oh no, he ruined it!”
I was glowering going into the bottom of the ninth. I had seen Jeter nearly break down at short the half inning before (before the blasts) and I just had no feeling he would do anything but strike out or ground out weakly in the ninth.
But no, the situation turned into the biggest hyperbole creating moment of Derek Jeter’s career. Driving in the winning run was so hokey-movie-like that the entire MLB Network would explode in its myth-making histrionics. I instinctively knew that the critics would be blasting Buck Showalter for not walking him.
But in that moment, nothing mattered except that Derek Jeter knocked in the winning run…a walk off…in his last Yankee Stadium at bat. I sat in my chair and wept. The sobs were one part sadness and knowing I would never watch him again in pinstripes and also euphoric that he had ended it in that fashion.
And then my son called from Florida. He wanted to share the moment with me. Jeter has been his favorite player and unlike me, has rooted for him for almost two-thirds of his life. My son’s voice was quivering and we shared that moment, father and son, in a way that only baseball can do and for both of us, we were emotional between sadness and elation. That call was probably the icing on the cake for me.
After my son hung up, I stared at the television and half listened to the continuing hyperbole, but I didn’t care. All I could think about was that I had just watched something I will never forget and shared a moment with my son that will be a lasting memory for both of us. Take your narratives, all ye who disseminate them. This was baseball and exhibit 4,543 why it is the greatest sport of them all.