The 2014 baseball season has been a weird one for the Yankees. Set with the backdrop of longtime captain Derek Jeter's retirement from the game, the team itself has been inconsistent, baffling writers around the country with a struggling offense that wasn't supposed to be nearly this bad while somehow staying on the periphery of the playoff race thanks to a pitching staff that wasn't supposed to hold up after losing most of the Opening Day rotation but has due to some surprising performances. It seems that barring a miracle playoff run, people will not be waxing poetic about the 2014 Yankees the way they do about the 2009, 1998, or even the 2012 squad, which at least made it to the ALCS.
Jeter's retirement is coming with the franchise at the classic uncertain crossroads. He is the final survivor of those glory teams from the late-'90s that guided the Yankees out of their uncharacteristically long playoff drought and won four World Series titles in five years while making the playoffs in all but one season during an 18-year stretch, an absolutely incredible run of success. His best friend, catcher Jorge Posada, saw his performance slump in 2011 and retired after the season. Former 1992 Class-A Greensboro Hornets teammate Andy Pettitte, a rotation mainstay throughout most of Jeter's tenure, first retired after 2010, then came back after a year only to leave the game for good at the end of the 2013 campaign. Closer Mariano Rivera, sent down from the Yankees at the same time as first-year players in 1995, the beginning of the Yankees' playoff streak, also departed at the end of 2013, and he will almost certainly join Jeter in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Jeter is the last link to those days of burgeoning success, when people coming to Yankee Stadium didn't necessarily expect the Yankees to win the World Series every single year. Indeed, when the Yanks won the '96 World Series the same year Jeter won Rookie of the Year, it was a pleasant surprise. Now, expectations have changed. Some fans have never seen the Yankees go through a losing season with an under-.500 record. The 2013 squad tried its hardest to go under .500 but thankfully didn't in the end, and while this current team doesn't look too great either at the moment, projection systems say that most likely, they will narrowly finish over .500 again.
Many fans are peeved about the decline, and the team's future is a great unknown. The longest-tenured Yankees after Jeter are the currently suspended and reviled Alex Rodriguez (ten years), and a trio of unheralded players who have either already turned 30 or are approaching it: Brett Gardner, David Robertson, and Francisco Cervelli (six years). The only one who will definitely be back next year is Gardner, and while people like Gardner, he's not the same franchise icon as Jeter. There are no ready-made successors to pass the torch onto as the Yankees' most iconic player the way that Lou Gehrig was when the Yankees traded Babe Ruth after the 1934 season, or the way that Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle were when Joe DiMaggio retired in 1951.
Mantle's later departure from the game might resemble Jeter's the most. Although in hindsight, Mantle's final season statistics were quite good (as opposed to Jeter) given that he was playing during the "Year of the Pitcher" when a normally-disappointing .237/.385/.398 triple slash actually meant a potent 143 OPS+, people didn't think of that at the time. They saw Mantle as an even more broken-down version of his former self, now so ravaged by injuries that he was restricted to first base instead of his legendary center field position. Mantle's .237 average meant that people saw him leaving the game on a sad note, and that was only punctuated by the players around him. Mantle himself often said that it was weird for him at first base seeing the much-maligned Horace Clarke at second, Gene "Stick" Michael at shortstop, Bobby Cox (yes, that Bobby Cox) at third base and wondering "Man, where'd everybody go?"
The 1968 Yankees finished a few games over .500 at 83-79, in distant fifth place out of the 10 teams in the AL. Their run differential was +5, and their stats ranked in the middle of the pack among their competitors. They were basically the definition of mediocrity, and their best hopes for the future were pitcher Mel Stottlemyre, outfielder Roy White, and Mantle's soon-to-be successor in center, Bobby Murcer, who was away serving in the military. Former championship manager Ralph Houk led the motley crew of mediocrity, just as former championship manager Joe Girardi does now. There were no people to hand the franchise off to, and the CBS ownership was inspiring nobody.
Fortunately, there seem to be a few more hopes than what the '68 team had. The Yankees are crossing their fingers that Masahiro Tanaka can avoid Tommy John surgery, and when he was pitching in the first half, he was as exciting as any pitcher in baseball. Gardner's their best overall position player, rookie Dellin Betances has been straight-up nasty in the bullpen, and there are some intriguing prospects who could be knocking on the door of the majors soon in second baseman Rob Refsnyder, first baseman Greg Bird, outfielder Aaron Judge, pitcher Luis Severino, and more.
Nonetheless, it can be a challenge escaping the feeling of melancholy as Jeter's career winds to a close with a mediocre team around him. Hopefully it won't take the Yankees eight years after his retirement to return to the postseason the way they did when Mantle called it quits. Someone will take the baton from from Jeter's hand at some point, just as future captain Thurman Munson eventually took it from Mantle--it's just an anxious time for Yankees fans waiting to see who will be the leader of the new Yankees as they march on into the great unknown.