After almost two decades, Derek Jeter announced on Wednesday that 2014 would be his last season. Given his injury-riddled 2013, it's no shock, and yet the prospect of baseball and the Yankees without him is startling all the same.
If anything is surprising about this decision, it's that Jeter is making this public ahead of the season, meaning we are in for a long summer of tributes, plaudits, remembrances, and then also complaints about the repetitiveness of those tributes, plaudits and remembrances. Certainly if anyone deserves such a long ongoing celebration, it's Jeter, like Mariano Rivera before him. Nevertheless it's not the captain's usual modus operandi. Jeter typically prefers to deflect consolidated attention with platitudes about the team and winning and championships. It would have been more in character to announce this with a few weeks or even days left to go in the season. Still, this didn't come out of nowhere: Over the past few years, Jeter has talked more and more often about trying to enjoy the moment, stop and smell the baseball flowers.
Jeter leaves baseball with more than his fair share of iconic moments and images. The infamous Jeffrey Maier home run in 1996, which ushered in an era of Yankees success that was glorious or suffocating depending on your rooting interests. His Subway Series MVP performance in 2000. The flip play in the 2001 playoffs and the "Mr. November" home run in Game 4 of the World Series that same year. The dive into the stands against the Red Sox in 2004 (in hindsight, maybe he should have just let the ball drop for a foul rather than risking injury during a regular-season game, but damned if that wasn't an amazing moment anyway). Closing out the old Yankee Stadium with an unplanned speech, and his 3,000th hit, a home run, at the new stadium. Coming back from injury with another homer (for a guy without huge power, Jeter certainly could pick his moments).
The jump throws, the inside-out swing, the fist pumps. Bidding farewell to his fellow homegrown stars one at a time, first Bernie Williams, then Jorge Posada, then Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. Now there's no one left to see Jeter off, except Bob Sheppard's voice from beyond the grave. He's the end of the line.
You'd think it would be hard to overpraise a no-doubt first-ballot Hall of Famer, yet at times -- and to be fair, through no fault of his own -- that did happen with Jeter. How many overwrought columns have we read praising his Leadership and Values and Winningness and Playing The Game The Right Way? How often did media and fans alike talk about his great defense which, upon further examination and with some indelible exceptions, was not in fact great? Given those torrents of overweening praise it's sometimes easy to forget how amazing his on-field achievements actually are.
Jeter is easily one of the top five best-hitting shortstops of all time, maybe one of the top three, and he has a more storied postseason career than any of the others. He debuted in 1995 and played 18 more seasons, hitting a cumulative .312 with a .381 OBP and a .828 OPS. There are those 3,316 hits, and 256 homers, not bad for a shortstop. His OPS+ is a bit less than you might expect at 117 (that's 17 percent above average), but by Baseball Reference's WAR he is fifth on the Yankees' all-time list -- pretty impressive considering the four names above him are Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio. Jeter played more games than any of those legends, has more hits than any of them (more strikeouts too, which comes with the territory), has been on base more than any other Yankee, has more stolen bases than any of them, has scored more runs than all but Ruth and Gehrig and hit more doubles than all but Gehrig.
On top of all that, Jeter has played the equivalent of just about a full season, 158 games, in 16 years' worth of playoff appearances. In that time, he put up numbers quite similar to his regular season stats: .308/.374/.465. No matter your feelings about the entire concept of "clutch," that Jeter rose to occasion after occasion is not up for debate.
You could say this is the end of an era, but the era's really been ending in slow motion for years now. Clearly something had changed when MLB launched a campaign asking fans who "the face of baseball" is, and there was even any question about it. Jeter has been looking mortal for a while now, but the real beginning of the end was Game 1 of the 2012 ALCS against the Tigers -- Jeter tried to make a fairly routine diving play on a Jhonny Peralta ground ball and crumpled on the field with what proved to be a very nasty and lingering ankle break. Jeter's story had, in the past, gone according to script to a remarkable degree -- how many kids decide that they want to play shortstop for the New York Yankees, and then actually do it, and become one of the best ever, and seemingly avoid most of the pitfalls of fame and celebrity while they're at it?
"I have achieved almost every personal and professional goal I have set," wrote Jeter in his retirement announcement. That right there is what makes the man so admirable and so hateable all at the same time. But when Jeter's ankle turned and broke beneath him, he went off-script. It seemed like he was back on track when he returned in 2013 with a bang of a home run, but that was a false start; within a few games, he was back on the disabled list. The human body betrays every athlete eventually, even him, though unlike many of his peers Jeter is self-aware enough that he will be leaving before the game kicks him out.
On a personal note, Jeter took over full-time at shortstop in New York in 1996, when I was 14 years old. ("Who's that? What happened to Tony Fernandez?" grumbled my father, but then Jeter hit a homer on Opening Day, won Rookie of the Year, helped the Yankees to their first World Series since 1978 and no one in my family grumbled about him again for a solid decade). He has been at the center of my baseball universe ever since, and like all Yankee fans my age, I have surely watched him play more than any other player, thousands of games, and probably written more words about him than any other player too. So, while it may be time for him to leave, a Jeter-less baseball landscape is going to take some getting used to.
How many times do you think Jeter has said some variation on the phrase, "I want to help the Yankees reach our goal of winning another championship"? Hundreds, or thousands? In any case, he said it again Wednesday, in his retirement announcement. This year, more than most in Jeter's career, it will be an uphill battle -- the Yankees have a lot of talent, but a lot of holes and questions as well. Their infield, Jeter not least, is aging and in questionable health, and their pitching is top-heavy. This team will want so very badly to win one last World Series for the Captain, and that would be the all-too-perfect ending. But as we've seen, not even Derek Jeter can follow the script every single time.