About 13 years ago, I was home in northern New Jersey on Memorial Day weekend. It wasn't a particularly memorable day. I was off from school, a nice little break before finishing up the fifth grade (apologies if that makes anyone feel old; if it makes you feel better, down the state aways, Mike Trout was a grade below me). I was not really a baseball fan--sucking at Little League can drain the fun out of it to any kid, and both the N64 and the Game Boy Color were still my number one obsessions. My uncle was watching the Yankees game though, and for some reason, I decided to watch as well.
They were playing against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. I had no idea they were the three-time defending champions; I just knew that they were obviously baseball's best and some guy named Derek Jeter was their best player. A couple years earlier, my mom bought me a Jeter t-shirt, but it's telling that I had no memory of owning this until she told me a few years ago. Jeter immediately made an impact on this game--with one out in the first, he walked, stole second base, and eventually came around to score on an RBI single by Tino Martinez. Andy Pettitte started and pitched seven innings of three-run ball. Paul O'Neill took his old friend David Cone deep for a two-run homer, and he later helped the Yankees score the game-winning run by leading off the eighth with a double against Pete Schourek. Jorge Posada brought him in with a double of his own against the incomparable Rich Garces. Mariano Rivera wrapped up the win with a 1-2-3 ninth inning, ending it by fanning Jose Offerman.
In many ways, this was the quintessential Yankees game of the dynasty era, and it all started with Jeter. He was the sparkplug of the Yankees for so many years. There was a definite chance that he would become that kind of player when the Yankees drafted him sixth overall in 1992 and when he won Minor League Player of the Year in 1994. Nonetheless, he was never the consensus top prospect in the game, and many thought Ruben Rivera to be the better prospect. (Sidenote: lol that Rivera is now best known for getting busted stealing Jeter's glove in spring training of 2002 and for "the worst baserunning in the history of the game.")
Yet jump to 1996, Jeter's rookie year. In retrospect, it wasn't a full-on "onslaught of the league" type Rookie of the Year performance, but he just hit the ground running from day one. On Opening Day 1996 against the defending AL champion Indians, he hit his first big-league home run and made a terrific over-the-shoulder catch in the field, making a big impression on the Yankees and their previous greatest shortstop in team history, Phil Rizzuto, who was in his last season in the broadcast booth. It was a sign of things to come.
Jump ahead several months and the Yankees are down 1-0 in the ALDS against the Texas Rangers. They won their first AL East title in 15 years, but they risked it coming close to all being for naught if they lost Game 2. They would be down 2-0 in the best of five with all of the next three games scheduled to take place on the road. In the bottom of the 12th though, Jeter did his part to ensure that the Yankees avoided the prospect of elimination. He singled against future teammate Mike Stanton to lead off the inning. Should-be Hall of Famer Tim Raines worked a walk, and Charlie Hayes tried to bunt Jeter to third. Dean Palmer threw away the ball, Jeter scored, and the Yankees had tied the series. They finished the Rangers off a couple days later. Throughout the next two rounds of the playoffs, it almost seemed like Jeter couldn't avoid being in the spotlight for big Yankees moments. Who hit the controversial game-tying homer in Game 1 of the ALCS against the Orioles that should have been fan interference? Jeter. Who played an important role in rallies of Games 3 and 4 of the World Series against the Braves when the Yankees were fighting for their lives? Jeter.
In the end, the Yankees were World Series champions in Jeter's first season. For the vast majority of my life, Jeter's been the guy sparking rallies for the Yankees whether it was winning the 2000 World Series MVP by wrecking the Mets and destroying any momentum they might have had after a Game 3 victory by homering on the first pitch of Game 4, or by completing the miraculous "Flip Play" in Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS that helped the Yankees avoid a sweep with a 1-0 win. He was at the heart and soul of the "three-peat" Yankees from 1998-2000, posting legitimate MVP-caliber seasons in '98 and '99. Jeter struggled in the 2001 playoffs for the most part, but he hit the most memorable home run of his life on the first pitch of November baseball in MLB history to end Game 4 of the 2001 World Series and tie up the Fall Classic.
I was listening in on that homer--in the past several months, I had transformed from barely-passable Yankees fan to a devoted fan who was now a Star Ledger sports section addict. Watching Jeter and his teammates kick ass was a ton of fun. I was so crazy that one time, I stayed up until like 3-4am on an evening in August, listening to WFAN 20/20 updates on a Rangers/Red Sox game that went 18 innings. I wanted to see if the Yankees could pick up a game! Was that so wrong? Mike Mussina's near-miss perfect game attempt broke my heart but only made me more attached as a fan.
I realized how badly I wanted to see the Yankees succeed and be just like my dad, a rabid Yankees fan as well who fondly remembered the late-'70s Yankees championship teams and remembered being at raucous Yankee Stadium when Chris Chambliss homered to win the '76 pennant. He sadly passed away in '94 and never got to see Jeter play, but I knew that he would have loved Jeter, a player who was very much like his favorites in terms of team leadership--Thurman Munson and Don Mattingly. The attacks on 9/11 so close to home merely drew me closer to this team. One my Little League coaches worked at the World Trade Center and he passed away in the catastrophe. Living so close to the City, it was virtually impossible to not know someone who worked around there.
As you can imagine, with all this personal backdrop, it was absolutely crushing to see Luis Gonzalez's blooper fall in behind Jeter in Game 7. When Alfonso Soriano homered to put the Yankees on top, I grabbed a blank tape cassette and hit record so that I could capture the radio reaction to the Yankees winning their fourth straight title. I felt shell-shocked when it ended. I didn't even cry. I was numb. In the weeks that followed though, I learned that Jeter was actually under a 10-year contract and that he would have plenty more time to help the Yankees return to the top.
A year and a half later, it's Opening Day 2003 in Toronto, Hideki Matsui's first game as a Yankee. It was a long winter, as the Angels had taught me a harsh lesson about simply expecting the Yankees to return to the World Series. THAT Division Series I cried after. How in bloody hell could a 103-win juggernaut finish high up among the league's hitting and pitching categories and still fold in four games well before the World Series? Regardless, I'd moved on and learned my lesson and eagerly anticipated Jeter leading the Yankees back to the World Series. Suddenly, on a play in that first game, Jeter boldly tried to go first-to-third on a slow grounder to the left side. It was a heads-up play by Jeter since no one was occupying the base, but to his credit, Blue Jays catcher Ken Huckaby hustled over to third base and tagged Jeter out.
To make matters far worse, Jeter separated his shoulder diving into Huckaby and was out of the lineup indefinitely. The irrational young fan in me said, "Well there goes the season. Jeter might be gone until the All-Star break. How are the Yankees supposed to keep up with Boston in the meantime?" The Yankees managed to make it work though, and Jeter defied all expectations by returning healthy on May 13th; he missed just 36 games. It seemed like Jeter was indestructible, especially when he bounced back from the injury with an excellent season that nearly won him the batting title. The Yankees won the AL East again, and I got to experience one of the greatest moments of my fandom when Aaron Boone walked off against the Red Sox. Even though the Yankees lost the World Series, 2002 had taught me to appreciate simply getting that far, so while I was angry at first, I quickly grew to appreciate the '03 team even more. That appreciation only grew as the Yankees failed to reach the World Series over the next several years.
Fast-forward again six years, and a lot had changed, both for the Yankees and me. Gone were the days of Bernie Williams, Joe Torre, and the old Yankee Stadium. Gone were the days of living at home, as I was now in college. It was my sophomore year, and I watched with joy as the Yankees rebounded behind a tremendous season from Jeter and his teammates (both new and old) to return to the playoffs after a rare quiet year in 2008. The year before, I watched as one of my good friends from freshman year react to his favorite team, the Phillies, finally win a World Series after a 28-year drought. I wanted that simple, stunned reaction of "...they won?" Obviously that sounds silly coming from a Yankees fan, but keep in mind that I had not actually seen the Yankees win their previous titles in the '90s dynasty years.
Thanks to outstanding playoff seasons from Jeter, Matsui, Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, and company, the Yankees won their 27th championship. It was unforgettable. The younger and more affable Robinson Cano had replaced Jeter as my favorite player, but it was still a joy to watch the now-Captain celebrate again, especially coming on the heels of one the greatest seasons of his career. When I was younger, I couldn't believe that the advanced statistics that I was quickly growing interested in said that he was a bad shortstop, but I now had a better understanding of them, so that made his '09 season even better for me since he improved in that long-lacking area as well. Unfortunately, I had no idea that the end of '09 was the last great peak for Jeter's career.
Each of the next four seasons brought their own individual challenges for Jeter. His defensive improvements lasted only one year; as Ben Lindbergh noted, Jeter's now-mid-to-late-30s body simply could not keep up with the rigors of the shortstop position. At the plate, he even declined from well above league average at a 125 OPS+ in 2009 to a career-low 90 OPS+ in 2010. He only managed six hits in the Yankees' six-game ALCS loss to the Rangers. The 2011 season brought excitement as Jeter neared 3,000 hits, but it seemed like he was struggling toward the mark; prior to the day of his 3,000th hit, he was only batting .257/.321/.329. Even the notion that he was indestructible was damaged as he spent time on the DL in late June.
Still, when my friend Tom contacted me late on July 7th after Jeter recorded hit number 2,999 and asked if I wanted to try to go to the Yankees game the next day, there was only one obvious answer. I was home for the summer in New Jersey just a couple weeks after returning from my semester abroad in Australia, but I was quite ready for another kind of adventure. We tried to go, bought StubHub tickets, and NJ Transited/Subwayed all the way to the stadium only to discover that it was rained out. Womp womp. We went home, and Tom haggled with StubHub to get a credit for the tickets that he could apply to the very next day. So on July 9th, we did the whole dance to get back to the Stadium on a beautiful afternoon. Thankfully, Jeter rewarded us:
It was the greatest moment I have ever seen live at a baseball game. The fact that Jeter capped it by going an incredible 5-for-5 that day with hits that helped win the game made it even better. (And I didn't even have to bother listening to Michael Kay's histrionics!) From that moment onward for the next season and a half, it was like we had vintage Jeter back. He hit .338/.392/.451 for the rest of the season, and though he did not have the greatest of playoff series in the ALDS loss to the Tigers, he was far better than expected in 2012 with a .316/.362/.429 triple slash and an AL-high 216 hits. It seemed too good to be true that we finally had the return of prime Jeter. He continued his hot hitting in the ALDS against the Orioles, batting .364/.391/.500 in the five-game victory.
Then, out of seemingly nowhere, came the 12th inning of the ALCS opener against the Tigers. I don't need to reiterate what happened. It sucked. Jeter was one of their only hot hitters and his bat was suddenly replaced by the likes of Jayson Nix and Eduardo Nunez. It didn't even feel surprising that the Yankees got swept after that. His extremely slow recovery from the injury in 2013 proved that Yankes fans finally had to recognize that this Hall of Famer's career was coming to a close.
When he was younger, Jeter was able to come back from a separated shoulder in just over a month. Ten years later and plenty more chinks in the armor, it was a lot harder for Jeter to recover from this ankle injury. Yes, it was much more serious than the 2003 shoulder injury, but his age and history of playing through small injuries certainly didn't help. Small things like the homer in his first at-bat after his second DL stint in 2013 brought some hope, but Jeter just wasn't healthy. When the Yankees announced that Jeter had restructured his 2014 player option into a one-year contract for a little bit more money, it was odd, but it seemed like a sign to me that he acknowledged his career was coming to a close as well.
Now, we have today. Jeter has announced that he will be playing his last games later on this year, hopefully in October. I'm now in the real world with a college degree and a job, but like with Mariano Rivera last year, I've never watched the Yankees without Jeter on their roster. Although I agree that it's time for his brilliant career to come to a close, it won't make saying goodbye to him any less difficult. He has been the face of the Yankees and arguably baseball for the better part of the last 20 years, and it's bizarre to envision the Yankees without him. Jeter retiring marks the last connection to that first Yankees team that made me fall in love with the game.
As of now, there is no obvious leader in the clubhouse to replace him as the franchise's best-known name. At shortstop, the Yankees are even less prepared for his departure; unless major developments occur in the next year or so, we could be looking at another dry spell of seeing the likes of Spike Owen and Mike Gallego trotting out to shortstop for who-knows-how-long. All we know is that, as Jason said, it's the end of an era, and I'm starting to feel some of that numbness that I haven't felt as a Yankees fan since that blooper fell in over his head 13 years ago. I don't like it.
The only way to get rid of that numbness is for Jeter to have one last kickass season, much like Rivera did last year, but unlike last year, the Yankees better get their act together and not deprive their retiring legend of one last shot at playoff glory. Game 1 of the 2012 ALCS cannot be his last playoff memory. Win one for the Captain and start a new chapter in Yankees history with some style. Don't make this numbness last forever.