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I Don't Want to Cheer for Used-to-Be

Recently, an esteemed colleague took me to task for raining on the Derek Jeter 3000 parade. Taking the liberty of the ol’ loose paraphrase, his point was that the fans have loved Jeter all these years, have cheered him on, and so they should be allowed this moment to celebrate his accomplishments without someone trying to take it away from them.

The good news here, for everyone, I think, is that I’m not J.J. Hunsecker, Waldo Lydecker, Addison DeWitt, or Sheridan Whiteside, and I don’t have that kind of power. If I did, I might have argued some of the world’s major religions and political parties out of existence some years ago. Besides, I love celebrating great accomplishments. I go to Old Timers Day and Cooperstown, and all kinds of museums. The only ones I’m really sick of are the natural history types, because I can’t stand to see another dead animal filled with sawdust. Ever go to the American Museum of Natural History in New York? In one room they have a dodo skeleton, and in another a box full of Carolina parakeets. Each time I pass them, I quickly say, "I’m sorry," before moving on. It’s short for more extensive remarks that begin, "Though I am not empowered to speak on behalf of my species, I would just like to apologize…"

Alas, I digress, and without ever getting to Steller’s sea cow. As often seems to be the case, the disconnect between me and the party crew is that I tend to be more concerned about winning in the here and now, and I find it difficult to get excited about throwing a parade for a guy hitting .259/.324/.324 (.247 TAv). If it were me, it would almost be embarrassing. The 3,000-hit party is almost exclusively a celebration of what a player did in the past. High career totals are the province of old players, and it’s axiomatic that old players are either in decline or shortly to be in decline. Some players had great seasons in their 3000-hit year:

Age Year AVG OBP SLG TAv Pos
Roberto Clemente 37 1972 .317 .356 .479 .330 RF
Tony Gwynn 39 1999 .338 .381 .477 .293 RF
Eddie Murray 39 1995 .323 .375 .516 .297 DH
Willie Mays 39 1970 .291 .390 .506 .337 CF
Eddie Collins 38 1925 .346 .461 .442 NA 2B
Paul Molitor 39 1996 .341 .390 .468 .295 DH
Tris Speaker 37 1925 .389 .479 .578 NA CF
Stan Musial 37 1958 .337 .423 .528 .339 1B
Hank Aaron 36 1970 .298 .385 .574 .343 RF
Ty Cobb 34 1921 .389 .452 .596 NA CF
Pete Rose 37 1978 .302 .362 .421 .300 3B

Most of these players didn’t offer too much beyond the big year. Even Rose’s last 1200 hits were produced during seasons that were miserable by the standards of a first baseman (.283/.365/.348, 1979-1986). Now consider these players, whose skills had eroded to the point that they were some between "okay" and "miserable," and in no case had a season that was consistent with their Hall of Fame-level careers:Player

Age Year AVG OBP SLG TAv Pos
Al Kaline 39 1974 .262 .337 .389 .273 DH
Wade Boggs 41 1999 .301 .377 .377 .257 3B
Rafael Palmeiro 40 2005 .266 .339 .447 .268 1B
Lou Brock 40 1979 .304 .342 .398 .265 LF
Rod Carew 39 1985 .280 .371 .345 .270 1B
Rickey Henderson 42 2001 .227 .366 .351 .266 LF
Craig Biggio 41 2007 .251 .285 .381 .232 2B
Dave Winfield 41 1993 .271 .325 .442 .257 DH
Robin Yount 36 1992 .264 .325 .390 .279 CF
Paul Waner 39 1942 .258 .376 .324 NA RF
George Brett 39 1992 .285 .330 .397 .265 DH
Cal Ripken 39 2000 .256 .310 .453 .256 3B
Nap Lajoie 39 1914 .258 .313 .305 NA 2B
Carl Yastrzemski 39 1979 .270 .346 .450 .278 DH
Honus Wagner 40 1914 .252 .317 .317 NA SS

Some of these players stuck around for a bit. Wagner had a couple of decent years left in him, though they weren’t of the same quality as his Superman years. Most of the rest, though, recognized they had little left in the tank and retired.

The Jeter who will get his 3000th hit in the next few days isn’t the same guy who won all those championships and should have picked up an MVP award or two. With good health for us all, we’re going to have years to celebrate Jeter’s career. Doing so in the middle of a pennant race, one which the guest of honor isn’t doing much to help win, seems hypocritical and depressing. Hooray for Used-to-Be. Cheer three times, turn your head, and cough.

I don't want to take a thing away from Jeter or his fans, and as I said, it would be weird if I could. What I do want to do is continue to point out the inappropriate conflation of a player's personal career goals with a Get Out of Jail Free card. At the end of the season, should the Yankees not win, a portion of the responsibility will be his.