If Derek Jeter had waited to announce his retirement, he would have spent all season answering questions about his future and prevented fans, teammates and even opponents from bidding him a proper farewell.
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If the Yankees had waited until closer to end of the season to hold Derek Jeter Day, they would have risked staging a disruption in the middle of a pennant race, which is about the last thing Jeter would ever want to do.
So this, in the Yankees’ view and probably Jeter’s, was the logical course – Derek Jeter Day on Sept. 7, with 22 games left in the season. Problem is, Jeter is still playing. And the Yankees are fading. And Sunday’s 45-minute pregame ceremony, while undeniably nice, just felt sort of weird.
Jeter, in his postgame news conference, initially called it “awesome . . . a day I’ll remember forever.” Virtually every important person in his life attended the ceremony, from his grandmother, Dorothy Connors, to the older brother he never had, Michael Jordan. Jeter appeared relaxed and comfortable, and he chose the perfect words in his brief speech, expressing heartfelt gratitude to his fans.
Yet, for all that, Jeter also used the words “strange” and “odd” to describe the experience. It was almost as if he was attending his baseball funeral. The Yankees played video tributes from opponents, celebrities and other professional athletes after every inning. A large wreath with a black No. 2 hung on a stand outside the Yankees’ clubhouse after the game, and more than one reporter noted that the homage seemed unduly grim.
Not that the Yankees did anything wrong – they were sincere in their efforts to properly honor Jeter, and the ceremony was tasteful, if typically over the top. The team gave Jeter the obligatory custom-made Waterford crystal and a 10-day trip to Tuscany while donating $222,222.22 to his Turn 2 Foundation. Of course.
Still, the commemorative patches that the Yankees will wear on their caps and jerseys, the flags with the Jeter retirement logo hanging above the stadium, the proclamation from New York mayor Bill de Blasio . . . it was all too much, too soon.
Oh, the Yankees are all but finished, sitting 4½ games back and trailing three other teams in the race for the second American League wild card. But Jeter doesn’t see it that way, doesn’t want to see it that way. As his friends and family lingered on the field after the ceremony, he called an end to the proceedings, announcing to the crowd, “We’ve got a game to play!”
The Yankees, naturally, went on to lose, 2-0, again flailing offensively on a day when Jeter contributed a walk and an infield single. The defeat, coming on a day when the stadium reverberated with the echo of Jeter’s early championship years, only added to the poignancy of the occasion.
The stadium during the ceremony was louder and fuller than usual, even in the lower bowl, which so often is half-empty as fans linger in private dining areas underneath the stands. Almost everyone stood during the presentations, cheering for what the Yankees once were – and what they are unlikely to be again anytime soon.
Barring a spectacular turnaround, the Yankees will miss the playoffs two straight years for the first time since 1992 and ’93 (they were in first place in ’94 when a players’ strike ended that season). Jeter is the last of the Core Four, the sole remaining throwback to the team’s four World Series titles between ’96 and 2000. Jorge Posada retired after 2011, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte a year ago.
The Yankees, though, never hesitate to celebrate their past, and nostalgia is undoubtedly good for the bottom line when the present is so gloomy. Yet, for all the pomp and circumstance on Sunday, the ceremony seemed manufactured, virtually devoid of emotion. Part of that is just Jeter – he is famously stoic, though he admitted that his hand was shaking as he spoke. But another part is that the best baseball moments are spontaneous, unscripted.
Maybe we’ll get one of those moments during Jeter’s final game at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 25, just as we got one in Rivera’s final appearance last season. Few remember Mariano Rivera Day, which the Yankees held exactly one week before the season ended (the timing was less of a concern, for Rivera only pitched late in games). Virtually, however, everyone remembers Jeter and Pettitte walking to the mound to remove Rivera from his final home game, and the great closer sobbing into Pettitte’s shoulder for almost 30 seconds.
It’s difficult to imagine Jeter reacting in such fashion on Sept. 25, no matter what might happen. His teammates surprised him with a neat moment Sunday, allowing him to take the field alone in the first inning. But even with Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia, who joined the team in 2009, Jeter doesn’t have the same connection that he did with Rivera and Pettitte.
Those days are gone. And no matter how badly the Yankees might want to recreate them, they’re not coming back.