Watching Derek Jeter’s final season unfold brings both joy and sadness for this lifelong Yankee observer and one-time club employee. The joy is in celebrating the 20 years of memories, and the sadness is, of course, that it is coming to a close.
I am taken back to 1968, which was Mickey Mantle’s final season. There are similarities, and there are differences. The big difference was that no one knew for sure, including Mickey, that it would be his final season. He did not retire until spring training of 1969. So there were no ceremonies staged by opposing clubs, no grand sendoffs from fans.
But there were signs.
It was my first year working for the team, and my job was answering his fan mail. So I often found myself in his presence “reviewing important mail,” of which there was none. But I always managed to find a few to get me some face time with him.
One day in August, as I was sitting by his side, he took out a new pair of spikes and tossed the old pair into a garbage pail about 10 feet away. (What was I thinking in not retrieving them?)
“This will be my last pair,” he said, as he twisted and folded them to soften them up. I didn’t really know what to make of the statement, since I had no idea how long a pair lasted. I couldn’t immediately conclude that he was telegraphing his impending retirement. How did I know they wouldn’t last into 1969?
The 1968 season was very lonely for Mickey, and I suspect that is where the great similarity lay. “Who are these guys?” he must have thought, as he looked around the clubhouse and saw Ruben Amaro, Steve Whitaker, Andy Kosco, Joe Verbanic, Dooley Womack, and even a rookie third baseman named Bobby Cox. (Who would have guessed that there were two future Hall of Famers in that clubhouse—Mantle and Cox!)
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He had outlasted all of his illustrious teammates save for Joe Pepitone, Tom Tresh, and Mel Stottlemyre, but even they were of a younger generation. Gone were Yogi and Elston and Clete and Tony and Bobby and Roger and Moose. Whitey Ford was still around as a coach and someone to go to dinner with. But it had to be a strange feeling, seeing this underachieving club, practically stripped of its glamour. And Mick hit .237 that year, which didn’t make it any better.
Jeter has also outlasted his celebrated teammates. The retirement of Mariano Rivera last year turned the “Core Four” into a “Core One.” Jeter, the last Yankee to have spent spring training in Fort Lauderdale, now looks around and must be experiencing the same feelings. “Who are these guys?” he must be thinking, as he sees so many new faces. Gone are Tino and Bernie and Andy and Jorge and all the others who contributed to 17 playoff seasons in his first 19 years with the club.
He played in only ONE GAME in his 19 years in which the Yankees were mathematically eliminated from contention. ONE GAME! And that game hardly lacked significance. It was the final game in old Yankee Stadium at the end of the 2008 season, when he addressed the fans at its conclusion.
With some historic irony, Mantle died on August 13, 1995. Jeter had played in 13 Major League games to that point, and would play two more in September, wearing a memorial No. 7 on his sleeve as the Yankees marked Mickey’s passing. Now—with Joe Torre’s No. 6 to be retired—Jeter is the last Yankee to wear a single-digit number on his back, unless someone one day wears a zero. All the others will have been retired.
Jeter has passed Mantle in most games played as a Yankee.
The retirement of Jeter marks many things apart from his own statistical accomplishments and brilliant career.
First, in a way, it marks the end of a link that goes back to Babe Ruth’s arrival in 1920. Since that day, there has always seemed to be a “face of the franchise” who was “the guy.” There have been small periods of interruption including World War II, but you almost have an unbroken line of Ruth–Gehrig–DiMaggio–Mantle–Murcer–Munson–Mattingly–Jeter. Maybe Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield slip in there, but it’s a remarkable line.
Now it will end, at least for the time being. The Yankees have been unable to develop within their own farm system the next in line. They have acquired some fine players for their 2014 roster, but none seem capable of filling that elite spot in 2015, no matter how big a year they have in ’14. Is it over? It might be.
Also, with the retirement of Jeter goes a remarkable era that we can call “the end of Yankee hating.”
Certainly dating back to the Joe McCarthy years (which ran from 1931 to 1946), the efficient and seemingly cold-hearted way in which the Yankees went about winning their championships made a lot of fans hate their success and, well, everything about them. They called it arrogance. They said it was about having the most money. They hated Mel Allen’s voice on the air because it usually represented another Yankee win.
But with the arrival of Joe Torre in 1996, and with the debuts of players like Jeter, Rivera, and Bernie Williams, it wasn’t quite so easy to “hate” this franchise. Fans could still root against them (and for their own teams), but it wasn’t easy to “hate” the Torre/Joe Girardi teams. Even Boston fans came to admire and like Jeter and Rivera especially, because of the way they played the game—with professionalism and respect. I suspect that Jeter’s regular-season finale this year—if he’s healthy—will be a celebration of his 20 seasons. And it will come in Fenway Park, of all places, on September 28.
It is the same place where Mantle, unbeknownst to the fans, had his last time at-bat. Yup, the same date—September 28.
Like Jeter, Mantle was admired and respected wherever he went. He was the most popular player of his era. But crowds were smaller then; marketing was almost non-existent. There was no farewell tour, and if there had been one, there would have been no farewell T-shirts, no farewell sweatshirts, no farewell iPhones capturing every pitch.
It was a different time, but in many ways, Derek and Mick had much in common.