Relief. Relief was the first emotion I felt when I read that Derek Jeter was retiring. Relief that the Yankees wouldn’t have to plan around his increasing fragility, decreasing range and need for off days. Relief that he wouldn’t continue playing after becoming bad. The next emotion I felt was guilt. Jeter’s announcement made me realize how much his descent into mediocrity had affected my fandom. Just as Jeter and Rivera had personified Yankee victories and championships, now Jeter personified the difficult and steady decline the team seemed to start almost as soon as he broke his ankle.
Of course that’s totally unfair. Jeter has nothing to do with Teixeira’s and Sabathia’s decline, Rodriguez’s hip, Burnett’s banishment, Swisher’s postseason ineptitude, Chamberlain’s and Hughes’s failures to develop, Pineda’s injury, Rivera’s retirement or Cano’s departure. Sure Jeter seemed to overvalue himself renegotiating his previous contract, but overpaying Jeter even $10 million a year is only 5% of the budget. It would have been nice if Jeter had been willing to move to third last season; perhaps Stephen Drew might have helped us make the playoffs instead of helping the Red Sox win a World Series. But Jeter was a model of consistency for fourteen seasons between 1996 and 2009 and it is hard to imagine them going so well without his calm presence.
Jeter’s calmness and grace were his defining virtues as a player. While the ball was in play, Jeter only seemed aware of the ball, his teammates and his opponent. His regular season and playoff numbers are remarkably consistent: .312/.381/.446 versus .308/.374/.465. No matter the magnitude of the moment, he only showed his awareness of external environment after the play was over. Then you’d see a fist pump or a yell, smile or laughter from the first row of the dugout.
He even picked a calm and graceful way to announce his retirement. He was thankful and elegant, cleaner in writing than in a press conference. He controlled how it went out and let the talking heads talk about it on ESPN without his input. Instead questions and interviews will come during the time he would expect to suffer through questions about how he is feeling.
The way was great, but the timing is even more important for us fans and the team. This season will be a little sweeter, even if the overall team disappoints again. More importantly, Jeter’s announcement has made it easier for Cashman to improve the team. Cashman can now offer Stephen Drew the opportunity of being part of Jeter’s last season and then being the everyday shortstop for the 2015 Yankees. That’s way better than getting to play short if the next great Boston star stumbles. Plus other vets who might have a role in the pen may be more willing to come to New York to be a part of Jeter's farewell.
Players always talk about how they appreciate Jeter and this season will be all about appreciation. After the relief and the guilt, it’s appreciation and gratitude that I’m left with. Here’s to Derek Jeter, the truly deserving Captain, may the ball bounce into your glove and the wind be always blowing out to right.