Jeter means just as much to baseball as he does to Yankees
Two entities must replace Derek Jeter: the New York Yankees and Major League Baseball.
The Steinbrenners may have the easier job.
The Yankees will have a new shortstop in 2015. Jeter made that official Wednesday, announcing his retirement effective at the end of this season. The Yankees don’t have an obvious heir in the farm system, but rest assured that Brian Cashman will identify a successor — through free agency, trade or promotion — at some point in the next 14 months.
From that standpoint, the timing isn’t bad. Hanley Ramirez, Asdrubal Cabrera, J.J. Hardy, and Jed Lowrie will be free agents next winter. Their agents probably mentioned to them Wednesday that, with the Yankees entering the marketplace, this might not be the best time to sign an extension. (Yet on the very day Jeter announced his retirement, Ramirez told the Los Angeles Times that he intends to be "a Dodger for life." We’ll see.)
Troy Tulowitzki, the three-time All-Star who was quasi-available via trade over the winter, would make for the best narrative. (And you know how we in the sports media love narratives.) Tulowitzki wears No. 2 as a tribute to Jeter. He has the superstar ability (when healthy) and requisite swagger for the unenviable task of replacing Jeter. But he’s under contract through 2020, and the Rockies need him to replace their own retired standard-bearer, Todd Helton.
So, it may not be Tulo. But it will be someone. Joe Girardi will not mourn Jeter’s retirement by fielding an eight-man team in 2015. He can’t. There are rules about that.
The tougher question: Who will succeed Jeter in his other job — as The Face of Baseball?
Even the most obsessive Red Sox fans who jeered Jeeeee-taaaaah with irrational hatred during the tormented years before 2004 would have to agree: Jeter has been baseball’s most consistent winner and greatest ambassador for the past two decades. Such rarefied status within the sport will be remembered more enduringly than the final number of hits marked on his Cooperstown plaque.
In the wake of Jeter’s announcement, the debate raged on Twitter and through radio airwaves: What was the all-time best Jeter play? The cutoff flip in Oakland? The "Mr. November" home run off Byung-Hyun Kim? The headfirst dive into the box seats during an epic 2004 win over the Red Sox? The storybook 3,000th hit into the left-field stands at Yankee Stadium? Or, as Tyler Kepner of the New York Times contends, the first-pitch home run in Game 4 of the 2000 World Series at Shea Stadium?
The mere existence of that discussion validates Jeter’s mystique. For how many other active players would we be able to have a similar conversation? Are there any? The preceding paragraph included only the barest details of those moments, yet I’m willing to wager the basic descriptions were sufficient to conjure vivid memories — even among non-Yankees fans.
That wouldn’t be the case for Miguel Cabrera, or Mike Trout, or Bryce Harper, or Manny Machado, or Clayton Kershaw, or Justin Verlander, or Andrew McCutchen, or Paul Goldschmidt, or Albert Pujols, or Josh Hamilton. Could a few Astros fans debate Cabrera’s top five moments? Could a group of Royals fans do the same for Hamilton? No. And no. Jeter has been the most-watched player in modern baseball history. The runner-up is about as close as I would have been to the Olympic gold medalist in biathlon.
Once Ken Griffey Jr. began to age, Jeter became the closest thing baseball had to Michael Jordan or LeBron James — a bona-fide celebrity, recognizable to people who did not follow the sport. Yes, part of it was that the Yankees drafted him. But that was where the luck stopped and talent, integrity, leadership, charisma and durability took over. Some 1,000 young men since Jeter in 1992 have had the same privilege of calling themselves a Yankees draft pick. Not one has outshone The Captain.
Jeter has 3,316 hits, the most of any active player. He has played the rough equivalent of a full major league season in the playoffs and World Series — a grand total of 158 games, with, of course, a .308 batting average. But my favorite Jeter statistic is one — as in, he’s played one game in 19 years that began with his team eliminated from postseason contention.
Jeter always has possessed a preternatural sense for what was expected of a man in his position. While many starters filtered out of the American League clubhouse to catch private flights during the 15-inning 2008 All-Star Game, Jeter remained in the dugout. When MLB and the players union created the World Baseball Classic as the sport’s preeminent international tournament and platform for global growth, Jeter represented Team USA in 2006 and 2009. (Had he been healthy, he probably would have done so last year, too.) After virtually every game he played, win or lose, he spoke with the media.
Jeter’s grace is not a myth. His greatness has not been manufactured by the media or clever marketing executives. He has been winning championships, leading millionaires and dating starlets for roughly two decades. He’s had it pretty good — because he has earned it.
"Jeter, to me, is the best," Derek Lowe, a longtime opponent and brief Yankees teammate, observed during the 2012 playoffs. "He really is. His presence is unbelievable. It really is. It’s so impressive to see him act the way he acts, talk the way he talks, walk the way he walks. You follow that."
When news of Jeter’s retirement broke, I happened to be at the Diamondbacks’ spring training facility in Scottsdale, Ariz. There, Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers told me about the time he saw Jeter play as a teenager — when Towers was a young scouting executive with the Pirates and Jeter a high school star in Michigan.
"I remember," Towers said. "It was a rainy day in western Michigan. He had a T-brace on, an ankle brace. He had twisted his ankle maybe a week or two weeks before. My area scout — I think it was Steve Demeter — says, ‘You may not see him at his best. His ankle’s a little bit sore.’ So I went to the game.
"This guy made four or five of the best plays I’d ever seen — range plays up the middle, with a bad ankle. Went like 4 for 5. Pouring rain. Sloppy track. Playing like it was the seventh game of the World Series on a high school, rainy day. Going back to my hotel room, it was such an easy guy to write up. I still have my report: ‘If this guy’s there when we pick, we’ve got to take him.’"
Of course, the Pirates didn’t get the chance. The Yankees took Jeter at No. 6 overall. Four years later, he won a World Series as their everyday shortstop. He’s had the largest share of the national baseball spotlight ever since. We are about to find out if anyone in the sport is capable of absorbing the same wattage. Trout? Harper? Machado? McCutchen? Goldschmidt, the Diamondbacks’ star first baseman, is a Triple Crown-caliber hitter. But even Towers had to acknowledge that Goldschmidt might be able to walk down a busy street in Phoenix — let alone New York — without the locals noticing.
"I don’t know if you will ever find another Jeter," Towers said. "Those players don’t come along. I mean, they don’t."