Ian Pickus: “Say It Ain’t So, Jeter”

Sep 9, 2014

Yankee Stadium
Credit Ian Pickus, WAMC

After a cast of Yankee greats and Hall of Famers had taken their seats, after none other than Michael Jordan electrified the Yankee Stadium crowd, after the raucous cheers finally died down, a visibly touched Derek Jeter gave a brief speech. A line in the valedictory said everything.

“You guys have all watched me grow up over the last 20 years; I’ve watched you, too. Some of you guys are getting old, too,” the 40-year-old shortstop told the sellout crowd. "But I want to thank you for helping me feel like a kid for the last 20 years.”

He had it backwards, though, at least for me. Jeter was the one keeping so many of us feeling young. Twenty years is a baseball eternity, and these were 20 of the most entertaining seasons you could ask for. But yet…this era comes to a close now, after two decades and a lifetime spent in the playoffs, and it somehow feels too soon. As long as Jeter was in pinstripes, we were all still kids: those of us who grew up imitating his batting stance, making flip throws from the first base line, practicing the fist pump coming around first in slow-pitch softball games. It’s why Sunday in the Bronx the 5-year-olds in Jeter jerseys and 40-somethings wearing No. 2 hats came together to say goodbye, everyone soaking up one last glimpse of Jeter in the Yankee Stadium sun. Time moves on, especially in sports. For one afternoon, you wanted it to stop.

Critics have complained about the commodification of Jeter’s farewell season — that there are too many memorabilia tie-ins, too many “as seen on TV” product placements. That doesn’t bother me much, because this is nothing new for the Yankees of the past decade and their new billion-dollar stadium ethos. As the dynastic era has ended, the Yankees have found that nothing sells quite like nostalgia for championships past.

For a long time now, Jeter has been the last link to that era, and his retirement marks a baseball Rubicon.

Skywriting plane leaves a goodbye note to Derek Jeter
Credit Ian Pickus, WAMC

  But here’s the thing: I haven’t found the Jeter farewell tour in bad taste at all, from his final all-star game to standing ovations in ballparks across the country. Too often in sports, we don’t realize greatness until it’s gone; we fixate on next year’s free agents and draft order instead of appreciating the here and now. Injuries take players in their prime. No one spends an entire career with one team.

So this year has been different. Like Mariano Rivera’s retirement tour a year ago, the Jeter road show has given all of baseball a chance to applaud one of its best ever.

Sure, Jeter is hitting 50 points below his lifetime average, and his range, always a sabermetric bugaboo, is diminished. But here’s what I now know about what Jeter’s career means: my generation has already had its Mantle, its Gehrig, its Mattingly. For a long time, I didn’t really understand the Mantle worship by boomers like Bob Costas and Billy Crystal. I do now. Jeter, and the teams he led, is the prism through which I’ll see every team to come. Winning or losing, that’s a long time to look back.

I first fell for Jeter during his rise through the minors at old Heritage Park, during his brief tenure with the Albany-Colonie Yankees, when he was a No. 1 draft pick and an open question. I was a baseball-mad kid who figured it was all downhill after being honorary batboy one summer night. So many of those minor leaguers went on to greatness in the majors, but no one knew then Jeter would win five championships and finish sixth on the all-time hits list, destined for another upstate New York locale: Cooperstown.

I wore my old AC Yankees hat Sunday, bringing a bit of our shared past to a fleeting baseball present. It was one more chance to look out at shortstop and know, no matter what else might happen, at least No. 2 was out there and the Yanks were going to be OK.

He was older now, 40, ancient for baseball, as famous as any athlete but still unknowable, like a modern DiMaggio. The star-studded ceremony came to a close. The realities of a season on the brink and a quiet October would soon set in during another shutout loss to playoff-bound Kansas City.

And still: the kid trotted out to shortstop, that same trek he first made in the bigs in 1995. On this September afternoon, there was, as Jeter said, another game to play. For now.

Ian Pickus is WAMC's News Director. 

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.