The farewell to shortstop Derek Jeter is winding down, and on Sunday, the New York Yankees will show him the kind of love that the franchise has reserved for only a few men. On Sunday, inside the new Yankee Stadium, the franchise and its fans will honor Jeter, who’s retiring at season’s end.
His generation overlapped the Steroid Era, but Jeter, rich and handsome and, well, bland, never had his name linked with anything illegal. He was a Yankee and he did not a single thing to tarnish the blue pinstripes. He didn’t do anything to tarnish baseball either, which you couldn’t say about the other stars of the period.
But his time is up now; the years have made him a lesser ballplayer than the one we remember from a decade ago. Growing old in athletics has a way of doing that to men whose star shined as brightly – or brighter – as Jeter’s did.
It might not have been hard to find a ballplayer whose star did shine brighter than his. In his career, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols had stars that once shined brighter, but none had a star that shined as long as Jeter’s did.
So here Derek Jeter is, his star a twinkle more than a flaming supernova these days. But even as his first-ballot Hall-of-Fame career nears its final days, he remains unflappable, the coolest of performers from his generation – a man who never allowed the game to get ahead of him. He was “Mr. Rock Steady,” the captain of the most storied sports franchise in America.
The Yankees never slapped the captain’s “C” on just anybody. They only affixed it to players like Don Mattingly, Ron Guidry, Willie Randolph, Thurman Munson and, of course, Lou Gehrig, the quintessential Yankees captain. Not even Gehrig wore the “C” as long as Jeter did.
Of the lot, only Gehrig was as pure a Yankee as Jeter, though to even suggest as much surely is a topic to debate.
For all the base hits (3,363 and counting), the 14 All-Star selections, the five Gold Gloves and the World Series MVP, Jeter will never go down as one of baseball’s greatest of greats. What will be Jeter’s endearing legacy, however, will be the classiness he displayed every time he stepped onto the baseball field.
That’s how baseball fans everywhere will remember him. They will struggle to identify any singular moment of his. They will struggle even harder to find a life built on scandals, because Jeter avoided the embarrassing incidents that cost men like Bonds, Clemens and A-Rod the fame that they had worked so hard to build.
The tribute to Jeter on Sunday in Yankee Stadium will be a public thank you for a career played well. The Yankee faithful will say “S’Long Jete” before the man drives off into retirement.
They will cheer him, as fans elsewhere have done on his farewell tour of Major League ballparks. Jeter will stand in front of them, pride in what he’s achieved welling up inside him, and do what everybody would expect of a star as humble as he is: He will say thanks.
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Follow Justice B. Hill on Twitter: @jbernardh
(Photo: LM Otero, File/AP Photo)