Derek Jeter played his antepenultimate home game as a Yankee last night. Today he took the Yankee Stadium diamond for the second to last time ever. Between the two games, he went one for nine at the plate, striking out thrice. The Yankees, meanwhile, lost both contests.
The two games are fairly emblematic of the season as a whole for the 40 year old Captain and his Bronx Bombers. Jeter’s farewell tour has been, for the most part, a resounding disappointment on the field; Jeter has had a hellish season from a statistical perspective, far and away the worst full season of his career. He is the owner of just 23 extra base hits in 625 plate appearances and an embarrassing OPS of .611. His team has managed, to date, just 81 wins and will fall short of the playoffs. They have failed to take advantage of an unusually weak AL East or to send Jeter off with one last trip to October.
Jeter’s final season has, however, been a beautiful thing in other ways. While his numbers have faltered in his closing campaign, Jeter has still engendered the same love and worship, and loathing and criticism, that have characterized his fabulous career. Jeter does represent everything we love about sports. And I don’t mean that in the way so many do–in the tacky, cliched sense that he’s an unassailable teammate, leader, and person. Those characteristics are subjective and hard to prove anyway, although I have little reason to think that the quiet Jeter lacks them.
Rather, Jeter represents the very things that create sports fans. He is an idol who has spurred endless debate. Was Derek Jeter a good defensive shortstop? I rest my case. So many fundamental baseball disputes are relevant to Jeter. It’s hard to have a conversation about the utility of defensive stats like dWAR or UZR without bringing up Jeter. Or the worth of Gold Gloves. Or even the importance of championships in ranking players.
Meanwhile, Jeter finds himself at the center of the debate between old school and new school. Everybody concedes that he’s been a great player over his two decades in pinstripes. But the new school guys will never agree with the old school folks about how great he was. After all, the dude’s individual accolades don’t look quite as good when they’re not paired with his team accomplishments. And those defensive stats are far from pretty.
The Jeter debates never seem to end. Now they surround whether he’s batting too high in the order (he is) and whether too much attention is being paid to his farewell tour. Just the other night, Keith Olbermann ripped through Jeter. At this point, Jeter almost personifies sports debate.
What I love most about Jeter, though, is that in the early 2000s he was the guy that every kid in America wanted to play like. We modeled our batting stances after him, practiced that jump throw he made so famous, and played video games that invariably had his face on the cover.
In so many respects, Jeter is post-2000 baseball.
Much of this comes down to visibility. But even more than that, it comes down to the fact that he’s Derek Jeter. He’s baseball’s Michael Jordan. He’s the face of an era of baseball. And yes, that era arguably ended more than half a decade ago. The MLB’s recent golden age with Jeter as front man evaporated long before Jeter’s proverbial baseball candle burned out. But Jeter’s coming retirement still feels too early. As I observed when Jeter first announced he’d be retiring, #2 has been manning that spat of dirt to the left of second at Yankee Stadium since before I was born.
Jeter will now move on. The MLB will be forced to find a new face. Kids playing in fields and sandlots will need to find a new player to emulate. And baseball fans everywhere will search for a new perpetual debate-creation machine.