A Curtain Call for Captain Clutch

25 Sep

Derek Jeter was my childhood hero, the first and greatest of my various sports man-crushes. I became a Yankee fan because of him. I’d go to bed cuddling a Jeter beanie baby bear, and I copied his stance in backyard baseball. I was crushed when I learned that lefties don’t play shortstop. (End the discrimination!) I admired his versatility, his prowess in every facet of the game, and in his life off the field, too. He may not be the greatest player ever, but he was certainly baseball’s most enduring champion in my lifetime, and his likes may never be seen again. He was the face of one of the most recognizable franchises in all of sport, enduring the brutality of New York scrutiny for twenty years, and in an era when many baseball stars were besmirched by the steroid scrutiny, he remained a pillar of decency.

Only in retrospect did I realize how much Derek helped form my ideal of what a man should be. Patient and respectful, words always carefully measured, yet consumed by a relentless drive toward greatness. Classy, and with an appreciation for finer things, though not overboard in flaunting it; just living it as it came, naturally, and with pride. A commitment to a clean and decent image, though not afraid to have a bit of fun, too. In hearing from the many fans of other teams who poured out their respect to Jeter this season, I felt a childish bit of possessiveness: Derek never meant to you what he meant to me. He was my idol in my fullest sense of the word, exactly the diversion a lost little eight-year-old needed, and while I grew older and deeper and stopped looking to sports for heroes, he never did anything to betray that trust.

At the heart of the Jeter mystique was his flair for the dramatic, something that made his 9th inning walk-off in his final Yankee Stadium game all too predictable. He had something others didn’t. Just reflect on that list of moments. There was his rookie season in 1996, when he always seemed to be the catalyst of every Yankee rally, most famously on that home run assisted by an 11-year-old; by 1999, he was one of the greatest offensive weapons in the game. His home run on the first pitch of Game 4 of the 2000 World Series snuffed out any momentum the Mets might have had after finally beating the Yankees, and that Subway Series left no doubt who was the king of New York. He’d built a dynasty, and was the face of the greatest run by a major sport franchise in 40 years. Perhaps his greatest moments came in 2001, when he made that sublime flip play in the ALDS against Oakland, a play whose ingenuity I never expect to see topped. His “Mr. November” home run that year won the 4th game of one of the greatest World Series ever played, an emotionally draining and ultimately crushing run in the shadow of 9/11.

That was hardly the end, though. Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS is synonymous with Aaron Boone, but the man who started it all was Jeter, who cranked a double with the Yankees down by three in the eighth to ignite the game-tying rally. While the team imploded against Boston in 2004, he was still fighting to the end, showing some rare extra emotion when swatting a key hit in Game 7. The Yankees’ fortunes dwindled over the rest of the decade, their fate tied to increasingly worse pitching and stars who had no measure of Jeterian class, but there was still room for one last spurt of brilliance in 2009, when he collected his fifth ring. Naturally, his 3,000th hit left the park; even when the injuries began to mount, it seemed like every return to action was punctuated by some little reminder of that flair.

Over the years the worship of Derek’s clutch performance became near universal, and the gushing at times went overboard; in turn, there arose a group of snarky critics who pointed out the flaws in his game—his lack of range, his inevitable gradual decline, and the emptiness of that vague, undefined ‘clutch’ adjective. No wonder that by the end it all became a bit tired, a perfunctory string of praise in which everything there was to say had already been said. It didn’t help that Mariano Rivera had gone through the same retirement rigmarole the year before Jeter, and that the team he captains, too, seemed a bit tired. Jeter leaves the Yankees in a state unworthy of his legacy, an iconic franchise sliding into mediocrity due to its failure to nurture that farm system that once produced Jeter and Rivera. The end of these farewell tours lifts a burden from the shoulders of this franchise, and frees them to take the first few steps into a very different era of baseball.

Losing was new and foreign to Jeter, and at times his steadiness in the face of it all seemed aloof and uncertain. Beneath the façade was a man with an unshakable belief in his own self, and unlike the serene Rivera, aging did not come naturally to him. His career paralleled the passing of the years that so many of us go through: invincible in his youth, living the dream and building that legacy before he had to come to terms with the steady march of time, the realization that he was no longer the man he once was. Time was the last and greatest enemy that not even Jeter’s mystique could conquer. But it couldn’t kill those memories, nor prevent another chapter in that fairy tale life from writing itself every now and then. As with Rivera’s stirring sendoff last year, tonight’s Yankee Stadium finale was a homage to all that is good in sports, one that can send us back into childhood without a hint of shame. Dream and reality blur, and whatever we call that state in between, it’s one of pure delight.

I’ve heard a few other Yankees fans say that Jeter’s retirement marks the end of their childhood. I’m not sure how my own story lines up with that, but it was hard not to feel another little twinge of age tonight. Tonight, when I got the goosebumps and, yes, the hints of tears when Bob Sheppard’s immortal voice echoed through Yankee Stadium for the last time ever: “Now batting for New York, numbah two, Derek. Jetah. Numbah two.”

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