Once upon a time, there were three young shortstops.
They arrived in the majors nearly at the same time, completely different in style and skills, but each carrying the promise of greatness. Nomar Garciaparra, with the Red Sox, was the flashy and charismatic one. Alex Rodriquez was the youngest, and held the most potential. Derek Jeter, of the New York Yankees, was a finished player from the moment he stepped on a major league field: poised, purposeful, and a winner.
While once it seemed certain that all three would meet at the Hall of Fame, it was not to be. Garciaparra won two batting titles, but his aggressive moves and spidery form made him injury prone. His reign as an elite shortstop ended prematurely, and so did his career. Rodriquez, as he matured, went from The Kid to A-Rod to A-Fraud, his reputation and life scarred by controversies, illegal steroids, lies and the habits of a sociopath. He sat out this season, at a time in his career when he had been expected (and paid) to be chasing the all-time home run record, with a humiliating suspension. He is the most unpopular player in baseball, and one of the most reviled of all time.
So then there was one shortstop, Jeter, and his life on and off the baseball field has been extraordinary enough to make up for the disappointments left us by his former shortstop colleagues. Last night, at the age of 40, he played his final home game at the position for the Yankees. His career statistics show no batting or home run titles, it is true, but shine brilliantly nonetheless: a .309 lifetime average, 3461 hits (3000 makes a player a lock for the Hall of Fame even if he doesn’t play the most difficult position on the field, as Jeter has ), just short of 2000 runs scored (10th all-time), twelve All-Star games, five Golden Gloves (as the American League’s best fielding shortstop), five Silver Sluggers (as the best hitter at his position), and most of all, seven World Series, five of them on World Champions.
Apart from the stats, awards and titles, Jeter was just as exemplary. He played in an era when it is impossible to hide as a celebrity: if you are a jerk, everyone will know it. He wasn’t a jerk. He was, in fact, the personification of the perfect sports hero. Jeter has been a leader and teacher by example to his team mates and his admirers, though his one-time friend, Rodriguez, would not absorb the lessons. He has had no personal drama, no tawdry sexual episodes, no bastard children. He was never arrested or suspected of using drugs, performance-enhancing or recreational. There were no DUI charges or petulant interviews. Derek Jeter never had to ask “Do you know who I am?” because he never acted as if he was special, because he made himself special by never acting that way, and because everyone did know who he was. In every way imaginable, from his public comportment to his ability to rise to the occasion under the pressure of a national audience, a rich contract and the hopes of millions, Derek Jeter has embodied the ideal of the athletic hero.
In so doing, he became the face, not just of his team, but of his sport. There is no obvious successor to Jeter waiting in the national stage wings: what he did, and the way he did it, is incredibly hard, though he always made it look easy. In a sport, the only sport, where so often games come down to whether a single player in the spotlight comes through like Roy Hobbs or fails like Mighty Casey, Jeter came through with routine, indeed annoying, predictability. His specialty was not the game-winning home run, though he hit those too, but the shocking improvised game-saving fielding play, and the chip-shot blooped to the opposite field at the perfect moment, scoring the game-tying or winning run with two outs and a Yankee defeat looming. As a Boston Red Sox fan, I hated Jeter for those hits—still do, a little—and that one flaw, that he radiated confidence to the point of smugness. Jeter never boasted out loud, mind you—he just looked, to my eye, as if he knew he was good enough prevail. As Dizzy Dean famously said, “If you can do it, it ain’t boasting.” Jeter was as good as that constant sly smile suggested.
One of those lousy chip-shots prevented a Red Sox championship in 2003.
He was at it again last night. What afficianados of baseball refer to as the Baseball Gods (there just has to be some intelligent, sadistic agency behind the fantastic scripting of so many contests) arranged for the Baltimore Orioles, running away with the A.L. East title, to score three runs in top of the 9th inning to threaten to ruin Jeter’s Yankee Stadium farewell. He had just finished an emotional speech to the crowd, and the game had one measly out to go to send Jeter to Cooperstown with a symbolic Yankee win, when the uncooperative O’s tied the score. No problem: in the bottom of the ninth, with the potential winning run on second, Derek Jeter came to the plate and won the game with a single…to the opposite field, naturally.
A game winning, walk-off clutch hit in his final at bat was as perfect a final act for Derek Jeter as the home run in his last at bat was the sublime exclamation mark to end the career of the great Ted Williams. Luckily for Williams, no national TV extravaganza had been planned for a remaining game, but Jeter is committed to let baseball celebrate itself by honoring him on Sunday night, as he plays for the last time in Fenway Park—ironically, Williams was supposed to play his final game in Yankee Stadium, but decided to let that home run bring down the curtain on his story in epic fashion.
Jeter could do the same—who would stop him?—and retire immediately, not risking a strike-out or a double play in his last time at the plate. But he won’t. For two decades he has risen to everyone else’s expectations, for that is what true heroes do. He’ll play on Sunday, and whether Jeter manages to deliver another dramatic hit to end it all or not, he’ll make baseball, and every baseball fan alive, proud of him.
This is what a genuine sports hero looks like, America. Look hard and cheer well, for they don’t arrive very often, and even when they do, they can’t be heroes any better than Derek Jeter, Number 2, of the New York Yankees.
UPDATE: Jeter did play in the final series in Boston, surrendering that dramatic hit as a storybook last at bat. In his final game, Derek Jeter got base hit (an infield single, but a hit’s a hit) his second time up to score a Yankee run, and left the field for the final time, having reached base safely and knocked in a run in his final at bat.