This was the day that baseball stood still -- not the sport so much as the social phenomenon, the force that shaped the 20th century in the United States and later Canada, the game that attracted presidents and proletariat, that defined August more than any heat wave could, that was bathed in scandal and yet always seemed to mop its brow clean, that both supported and shattered legends. It was the day America's game may just have signed off.
This was that day Derek Jeter, the last great player of the 20th century, doffed his cap to an adoring crowd, an enemy crowd, and said good night, taking with him not only the icons - the captain, the shortstop, Number 2 -- but the mythology that went with his career, and with the age. He may be our last link to Ruth, Mantle, Carew and Ripken, the pillars of 20th-century ball. It is not for their Hall of Fame talent that he mimicked so much as their embodiment of the game, a character that will now fade with the memory of that last hit, an RBI single into the autumn sunshine of Fenway Park.
The kid from Kalamazoo has long fascinated me. I grew up a Yankee fan with divided loyalties, in Toronto, where my father had also grown up, listening to the only baseball he could find on the radio in the 1930s, a Buffalo station carrying the Yankees of Babe Ruth. They were the great and gory years of Billy Martin, just before the team went into one of its dark ages, along with the sport.
Jeter restored hope -- not just for the Yankees, but for the game itself. There were more talented players, plenty of them, even at his own position. In an age of steroids and gazilliondollar contracts and trade-deadline deals, his gift was to give the game back its game. His gift was to transcend the crass and pecuniary nature of post-modern professional sport, and inject it a metabolic mix of humanity.
In August, I took my teenaged son to see Jeter's last game in Toronto, securing a seat behind home plate so we could watch, one more time, how he played the game. I watched Jeter again this weekend, on TV, from the "2perfect" farewell at Yankee Stadium Thursday night to the bittersweet ovations on Saturday and Sunday in Boston, at Fenway, the Fallujah of Yankeedom. There, for a moment, the Red Sox embraced a Bronx Bomber as if he were theirs, all of Boston seeming to stand in adulation while the ghost of the Bambino looked on.
Why does Jeter do this to us?!
His myth will be underscored by pennants and all-star rings -- losers can't be legends -- but his enduring image will be moulded by a character that baseball seems to have lost.
1. He stayed positive
Jeter's face has a natural smile, a mouth that curls up at the extremes, nothing but straight white teeth in between. He used that to endearing effect, seldom finishing an at-bat or initiating a double play without a boyish smile that whispered, "this is fun." But more importantly, in an age when chirping and equipment-tossing seemed normal, he rarely showed a negative emotion in public.
Jeter was remarkable to watch in the batters box, or standing on base, talking to his arch-rivals between plays. Even his enemies liked to be around him; witness the hugs he received from Boston players on his way off the field Sunday. He had said earlier that he would have ended his career on Thursday, in New York, if they were playing anywhere other than Fenway on the final road trip. He not only loved the game; he loved its tradition, including its rivalries.
2. He wore his grit
His uniform was rarely clean, and in later years his gait was rarely without the lurch of age and injury. That didn't make him the Iron Horse -- a title that will always belong to Lou Gehrig -- but he did play every game like it was in a rookie tryout. During his second at-bat Saturday at Fenway, with his team down 9-0 and nothing on the line, he ran so hard on an infield high bouncer that the fielder opted to eat it. Jeter suffered a small hamstring pull but finished the game and started Sunday, again outrunning the play on an infield hit for is final at-bat.
3. He was a team player -- in all the small ways
Not many players could extend an at-bat like Jeter did. An assassin's eye, a mystic's pulse, a ballerina's torso. On a slider, he could bend at the waist just enough to make the ball sink a bit more in an umpire's eye. He could extend an ordinary plate appearance to 10 or 12 pitches, alternatively reframing the strike zone and filling the stands with foul balls. His on-base percentage seemed to be of secondary benefit. With each pitch, he would dig into the box like a gardener tending a rose bed, just to disrupt the pitcher's rhythm. A Jeter at-bat drained both the patience and arm of a generation of pitchers, and exposed pretty much their full arsenal of pitches for the batters on deck. The power hitters lucky enough to bat behind Jeter could count their blessings, as for years they got to watch something better than a scouting film unfold before them as the captain did battle.
4. Mr. November was also Mr. April
Statistically, he was no Babe. Various charts put him at around 75th, all time, Cooperstownworthy but not likely to make anyone's Greatest Team of All Time. His star was consistency. He was solid batter, a reliable 300-hitter -- reliable being the key word. He was a legend of singles and doubles. He was no better in the field, slower than the generation of infielders that followed him and lacking the lateral movement of the great ones of his age. But always Mr. Reliable.
5. He spoke softly (and yes, carried a big bat)
He never promised theatrics, the way Babe and A-Rod did. But like all the great Yankees, he knew a moment when it came. His manager Joe Girardi said he had a rare ability, in big moments, to slow the game down. Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky were the same, letting history come to them. Last Thursday's farewell game -- a meaningless event to the season -- will be one of the greatest Yankee games of the decade because of the moment. Jeter's ninth inning single, driving in the game-winning run, made the front page of every New York newspaper, but it was only one of his souvenir moments. He turned an inning-ending double play, and in his first at-bat of the game, almost cleared the Yankee Stadium outfield fence, settling for a double and raucous standing ovation. As a Yankee TV commentator said, "that young man has a flair for the dramatic."
6. He had inner balance and outer calm
We didn't know how good Jeter was at managing his emotions until he spoke after the farewell New York game, at a press conference in Boston. He said the emotions around that game were so intense that, at one point, he had to leave the dugout to go to the clubhouse washroom to cry. It wasn't that he didn't want fans to see him in tears; he knew composure was an element of his game, and to lose it would mean losing his game.
7. Loyalty was not a card; it was a characteristic
In an age when players seem loyal only to their paycheques, and owners only to their next TV contract, Jeter let everyone know he was a Yankee forever. When the organization scouted him as a high school student, they were actually looking at some other Michigan players instead. A scout called back to New York, saying he had found a kid who was pretty good but, more importantly, a Yankee through and through. Jeter stayed that way, and the Steinbrenners rewarded him. Loyalty is always easier when it is priced appropriately. But he seemed to understand the bigger values at play, too. His loyalty to fans -- yes, in the richest sports market on the planet -- will serve him well for decades. At the Boston press conference, he confirmed that he had asked to not play shortstop at Fenway -- he'd be the designated hitter - because he wanted his last day in the field to be in Yankee Stadium, last Thursday. The pride of place.
8. He knew who was boss
In an age when superstars think they're bigger than the team, and the ownership, Jeter knew otherwise. Even a 14-time all-star was still an employee, and George Steinbrenner, until he passed away in 2010, was the boss. Jeter revered the boss, but also managed to connect him with the crowd. One of their better moments together was a VISA commercial, in which they're filmed in a conga line at a Manhattan night club.
9. He understood fate
Many people are blessed. Not many know how to show it. Jeter did. He was always aware of his special place in baseball, in New York and in America -- a mixed-race kid from middle America who seemed to presage the rise of Barack Obama. He was the Joe DiMaggio of his age, and yes, America did turn its lonely eyes to him.
Whenever the fates were with him, which seemed often, he knew how to bask subtly in their glow. Before the farewell game at Yankee Stadium, on a day when heavy rain was forecast and many expected the game to be cancelled, a rainbow came out just before he took the field. And then, hours later, with the Yankees ahead in the top of the ninth, it looked like he wouldn't get another at-bat. A lull in Yankee pitching took care of that, allowing the game to be tied, and the table to be set for Jeter's game-winning RBI. Sometimes, the stars just need to thank their stars.
And so it was with Number 2. In a sporting age with too many shades of Lance Armstrong and Ray Rice, he showed us how to play, how to compete, and how to win.
Now, the ultimate boy of summer has a chance to show us how to live.
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