The first time I heard of Derek Jeter, this young star emerging from the Yankees' farm system, I was an 8-year-old boy. He has never not been my favorite baseball player — even now, when he's neither young nor a star.
Jeter was a 22-year-old about to become an everyday starting shortstop around the time I was finally ready to inherit some sporting allegiances of my own, which made all the difference. In his first game that season, he smacked a homer. Then, the next day, he collected three hits. He seemed to play the game the right way, people would say, and he was so young! Since then, he's had a marvelous career. He's won five World Series titles, and he will be a Hall of Famer. He is, by all accounts, the standup guy he seemed to be as a kid. And now he is 36 years old, and he is no longer a very good Major League Baseball player — that should be pretty clear to anyone watching him closely. At last, all those splendid intangibles have been outstripped by all these mediocre tangibles. This is the year that Yankees fans finally concede the point.
Which means, as Joe Posnanski wrote last week, that Jeter and the Yankees are approaching a fascinating crossroads:
You know the deal. Jeter's contract with the Yankees is up at the end of the year. Both sides understand that they HAVE no choice but to work out a deal. The Yankees cannot possibly let perhaps the most beloved Yankee of them all go somewhere else and get his 3,000th hit and retire to another place's cheers and under another team's cap. Can't happen. And Derek Jeter cannot possibly go play for the Rockies or the Brewers or the Red Sox or the Mets, it's simply unimaginable for the man who still has the voice of Bob Sheppard introduce him. Can't happen. So the Yankees have to keep him, and Jeter has to stay, and both sides fully understand. But it is also becoming more and more clear by the day that Derek Jeter is declining pretty rapidly as a player.
Jeter has never been a good defensive shortstop. (Posnanski: "He was, by various statistical measures, a terrible defensive shortstop for much of his career.") He is mired in the worst offensive year of his career. (Posnanski: "Derek Jeter has made 432 outs-most in baseball by 17.") He is probably going to suck some life out of the Yankees' payroll. (Posnanski: "The Yankees cannot viably pay Derek Jeter less or the same amount as they're paying A.J. Burnett. He's Derek Jeter.") And he is old, for a baseball player. (Posnanski: "When you have a 36-year-old shortstop with a .314 lifetime average suddenly hitting .266 in September — it sure smells of serious and irreversible decline.")
Still, as Posnanski writes, this is bound to end the right way for Jeter and the Yankees, as long as both conveniently ignore the question of whether it's worth mortgaging the franchise's future for a lot of gooey sentiment. Baseball is a ruthless business, but it will go out of its way to soften the fall for a star like Jeter. (Take Craig Biggio: As an icon, Biggio meant half as much to the Astros and their fans as Jeter does to the Yankees and theirs, and he was kept around well past his expiration date.) For Jeter, loyalty will trump efficiency, let alone plain common sense. The Yankees can go out and poach a better shortstop, but they won't. And inevitably, Yankees fans will likewise pretend to ignore what is, on paper, a management gaffe — an honorarium that might quickly become an albatross. "I've been over and over it, and there's no way around it. The disaster is coming," Michael Schur gloated to Posnanski.
I've been over and over it, too, from the other perspective. After all, I've been a Jeter acolyte for as long as I've known the difference between left field and right. I collected his baseball cards and hung up his posters. I purchased a baseball glove with his canned signature, loopy in specks of gold, and I tried to lather it with oil until I acknowledged that it just wasn't a very good piece of leather. I imitated his batting stance, and, just for fun, I would fade into the hole and jump-throw against my body, hoping against reason that the ball would reach first base. Jeter's No. 2 was the first to go on any Little League team — before No. 3 or No. 7, even — and if he had decided, one day, to lift one pant leg and not the other, I'm pretty sure all of my friends, the very next day, would have revealed one stirrup, and only one stirrup. Anything Jeter did on the baseball field, we did on the baseball field.
He was our guy, the way Tom Seaver was for Mets fans of a certain generation ("I looked down at my white undershirt, on which I'd drawn ‘41' with a Magic Marker. ‘That's forty-one,' I said. ‘Tom Seaver's number,'' J.R. Moehringer wrote in The Tender Bar), the way Freddy Lynn was for New England kids ("Like every other kid in New England," Bill Simmons wrote in an ESPN tribute, "I wanted to be just like him."), the way Mickey Mantle was for my father (Mickey was fast and graceful with the sweetest swing, and he could have been the greatest, my father would tell me, while I imagined a Disney character's oversized stuffed head patrolling center at Yankee Stadium).
Jeter isn't the player he was then, and he won't be. But he remains our guy, and in Yankeedom, that counts for something. And if it means that Jeter is about to become the most overpaid player in baseball, well, so be it. Post-Moneyball, smart baseball fans have come to laugh at emotional attachment and fetishize efficiency above all else, as if there were something inherently noble about winning at a discount. What those leaked MLB financial documents teach us, however, is that there are far worse, more poisonous things in baseball than a team that wastes money — a team that wastes none of it, say — and that in the modern game, efficient is really just a nice word for cheap.
The Yankees spend extravagantly not on winning, precisely, but on preserving the aura of winning and organizational continuity, on that famous Yankee mystique — on gooey sentiment, in other words. Mock it all you want; no other team is as in tune with its fans' feelings, if only because no other team stands to make so much money off those feelings. In that sense, they have to keep Jeter around in pinstripes, even at a way-above-market rate, even when he's kicking balls all over the infield and swinging wildly at first pitches, even when he devolves from deficiency to outright liability. To their way of doing business, having Jeter in the lineup is every bit as important as dusting off Yogi Berra now and then and trotting him out for special occasions.
In the end, it doesn't make any difference that Jeter has started to go bad, that there are days in the field he looks more like a statue that wandered away from Monument Park. For a lot of us, he's still that same young star sneaking a homer over the right-field wall in 1996 or finding himself by the first-base line in 2001 or diving into the third row in 2004, a player so imbued with that essential Yankeeness it's as if he's been preserved in amber. Over the next few years, as the Jeter farewell tour slogs into a marathon, you'll hear a lot of chatter about True Yankees and The Truest Yankees. It will all be very tiresome, and it will be more accurate than anyone realizes.