In February, when Derek Jeter announced that 2014 would be his last MLB season, I must admit I was kind of bummed. It wasn't that I thought the Captain was leaving too soon, or that I wasn't ready to find out what a post-Jetertian Yankee era would look like. It was more that the thought of another retirement lap a year after Mariano Rivera spent a season saying goodbye too many times and in too many ways to count and getting gifts and ceremonies in places like Colorado and Houston, with which he had no meaningful connection, felt more like impending tedium than anything else. It seemed out of character for Jeter, a much bigger name than Mo among pseudo-fans, to artificially seek out more attention than what he already gets. Jeter's sayonara sojourn would be a repeat of the Mariano world tour, but on a much larger scale, complete with narratives and hyper-analysis galore. Was he doing the right thing? Would he become a distraction? Would there be too much done to honor him? Not enough? Face of baseball. Overrated. Leader. Selfish. Clutch. Intangibles. We knew heading in that 2014 was going to be about a lot more than just baseball.
Jeter's goodbye hasn't been received as well as Rivera's was. Maybe it's that Mo was still near the top of his game till the very end, while Jeter's been well...far from that. Maybe it's that he's always had his share of detractors, but something's different. Jeter's gotten incredible support from opposing fans and players, but there's also a ‘been there, done that' feel that's lingered...the gifts from other clubs haven't been as creative, the scrutiny over what's appropriate and what's not has been more present and the Captain himself seems less comfortable with the whole to-do. The Yankees have been criticized for catering too much to the spectacle in their refusal to play him at shortstop less or drop him from the second spot in the lineup and Jeter's somehow taken a hit from some for not stepping up and demanding that those measures be taken. With Rivera the "greatest closer of all time" epitaph was never in dispute, while Jeter's rightful place in history is a riper subject for debate. Even in his final days, we've seen bits like this scathing seven-minute tirade from ESPN's Keith Olbermann.
It's been said several times this year that Jeter's career essentially ended the moment his ankle broke in the tenth inning of game one of the 2012 ALCS. Symbolically, the Yankees' latest run of success, the one that began with a World Series title in 2009 and flowed through three straight playoff appearances after that, also ended that night. In a larger sense, the last two decades of Yankee dominance - seventeen playoff berths, seven pennants, five championships - came to a crashing halt that very second, too. Since that fateful October evening, the Yankees are a middling 166-157, including their three losses to Detroit in games two through four. The guy we're watching now is a kind of zombie Jeter - his ankle buried him in 2013, and he's clawed his way out of the grave this year, but only to plod around in a confused semi-alive state.
No matter what you think of Jeterpalooza, though - whether it's helped you put his magnificent career in perspective or whether you've found it all to be an over-the-top drag - rest assured that it beats the alternative. Imagine what we'd be talking about right now if Jeter's future was still up in the air. The chatter about his position in the order and in the field would be multiplied exponentially. Would the Yankees have done things differently if there was no light at the end of the Jeter tunnel? Would he have been dropped or benched when he had only seven extra base hits on June 1st? When his OPS at the All-Star break was .647? When he hit .207/.226/.261 in August?
Things would be getting worse as the offseason approaches. How would the Yankees react if Jeter decided this winter that he still wanted to play? Would they bow down to sentiment and treat us to another year of zombie Jeets at short? Would they offer him a bench role where he'd have little or no value? Would they ingloriously send him on his way as they did with Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada when their careers reached an end, even knowing that he could possibly sign elsewhere? What if Jeter wasn't sure about coming back? Would his decision hold up the Yankees' offseason? Don Mattingly, the team's previous captain hit only seven homers and posted a 97 OPS+ in 1995. With the singles-hitting Wade Boggs entrenched at third, it was clear the Yankees needed a power upgrade at the infield's opposite corner. Mattingly graciously urged the Yankees to go about their business as he pondered his future - they did, acquiring a budding star in Tino Martinez - but would Jeter do the same?
Jeter has a long history of making decisions that work out pretty well for him. From passing up the University of Michigan to sign with the Yankees a day after his eighteenth birthday, to eschewing free agency in favor of a ten-year extension in 2001, to positioning himself on the first base line as a third cutoff man - you know, just in case - in Oakland that same year, this is a guy who seems to know what's what. Jeter made the correct choice in calling it a career this year and he made the right call in announcing it when and how he did.