Farewell, Derek Jeter — and the End of Innocence

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Nineteen summers ago, I sat in the upper deck of a minor league baseball stadium in my hometown. It was the Triple-A All-Star Game, a showcase for the top players in the minor leagues just one rung away from the majors. Playing shortstop for the International League was a 21-year-old New York Yankees prospect named Derek Jeter. As a lifelong Yankees fan and a subscriber to Yankees Magazine, I was familiar with many of the organization’s minor-league players, especially players like Jeter, who were expected to make contributions in New York one day.

The only thing I really remember about Jeter’s performance that day was that he stole a base.

Two weeks ago, I sat in the upper deck of Yankee Stadium. The shortstop for the Yankees was Jeter, a 40 year old who will retire at the end of this season and surely be enshrined into the Baseball Hall of Fame as soon as he is eligible.

Jeter went 0 for 5.

When the same players play for your favorite team throughout a significant stretch of your life, time has a way of seeming frozen. Yankees fans were able to partake in this unique phenomenon from the mid 1990s until now, with the “Core Four” of Yankees ’90s icons Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada taking the field year after year.

They got a little grayer and maybe a little pudgier — and so did we. But we didn’t think about it. For those few hours every day, either at the stadium or watching on TV or listening on the radio (oftentimes to the same announcers we grew up with), we were 15 again.

With Jeter, the last of the “Core Four,” winding down his career, the final few drops of the Fountain of Youth we’ve been dipping our feet into for 20 years are finally about to dry up. We’ll still cheer for whomever is in pinstripes — David Robertson, Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury — but it won’t be the same.

What made Jeter, in particular, so special? It’s tough to define, but worth investigating.

While knocking Jeter’s natural athleticism would shortchange the physical gifts he was born with, he is not an Adonis, not a guy who looked ready to play whatever professional sport he chose. Put bluntly, he’s not A-Rod. He parlayed his B+ talent into an A+ career with, as cliché as it sounds, hard work and determination. He exhibited qualities, on the field and off, we hope to see in ourselves and our children.

He also had a flair for rising to the occasion. We’ll never forget The Flip — the seemingly impossible quick turn and throw to nail Oakland’s Jeremy Giambi at the plate in the 2001 American League Division Series. We’ll never forget The Catch — Jeter diving recklessly into the stands at Yankee Stadium, busting up his face on a railing to catch a ball against the hated Boston Red Sox on July 1, 2004. What’s more, the clutch run-scoring hits, the classic opposite-field “Jeterian” doubles are too numerous to even remember.

That game two weeks ago was my first time seeing the Yankees since I moved to New York last month, and it will probably be my last time seeing Jeter play. I made sure to keep score, an archaic statistic-recording process my father taught me at my first Yankee game when I was 11. The scorebook cost a lot more than it did in 1998, but the little pencil the vendor includes with the book looked the same — short, blue and bearing the Yankees name in simple, all-capitals print. Brian McCann hit a walk-off home run, and I hopped a train and called my dad to talk about the comeback victory I watched in The Bronx as he watched at home on TV. I felt young again, for a minute, then lapsed back into thinking about work, paying rent and other adult situations.

To say that losing Jeter equates to losing our innocence might be accurate for some, but for me, that ended when Don Mattingly, my first baseball hero, retired. But I’ve been holding on ever since, clinging to any available shred of those simpler times. Call it denial, but it’s one of the reasons we stick with sports — especially baseball, which lends itself to poetic stories and misty memories.

Jeter is the subject of accolade after accolade this season, and while he’s never been an individualist as a player, I think he’s self-aware and smart, so he knows what he’s meant to the game and to Yankee fans of multiple generations. I think he appreciates how much we appreciate him.

At least, that’s what the kid in me thinks.

Michael Lello is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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