I hate the Yankees.
Born and bred an Angels fan, some of my favorite sports memories include the Angels’ American League Division Series victories in 2002 and 2005 — when I attended the deciding Game Five — over the Yankees. Few sports memories hurt as much as the Angels’ defeat in the 2009 American League Championship Series to the Yankees.
But as a fan of baseball, I am devastated to see Derek Jeter leave.
Don’t get me wrong, Jeter picked the perfect time to retire — he’s no longer the player he once was. Even though everyone knew Mr. November’s retirement would come soon, his announcement still rocked the sports world.
In an era when baseball suffered from rampant steroid use, Jeter played the game the right way. And in a time when baseball suffered from a loss of popularity due to the concurrent rise of the NFL and the NBA, Jeter served as baseball’s face and kept it thriving.
Derek Jeter played for the world’s most popular baseball team, played on baseball’s brightest stages — winning five World Series and appearing in 16 postseasons — and played at the highest level. But more importantly, he played the right way.
Despite football players receiving PED suspensions more frequently — there have been 98 NFL players suspended for PED use since 2003 as opposed to 44 MLB players — football is rarely referred to as having a steroid problem, whereas baseball was recently considered as being in a “steroid era.” This “steroid era” stained baseball’s reputation more than performance-enhancing drugs stained any other sport.
Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Hank Aaron’s 755 home runs, Cal Ripken Jr.’s 2,632 consecutive games played, Pete Rose’s 4,256 hits, Cy Young’s 511 wins and Nolan Ryan’s 5,714 strikeouts are all revered records (or in Aaron’s case, formerly held record) that define baseball. More so than any other sport, baseball is a numbers-driven game and the highest of numbers are treated with the utmost sanctity. These statistics connect the past and the present superstars.
In football, rule changes altered the legitimacy of many records by shifting the NFL game to a more pass-oriented attack. Out of the top 14 record-holding seasons for most passing yards, only one season occurred before 2001. Matt Schaub and Matthew Stafford have thrown for more passing yards in a season than Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana and Brett Favre, but you will never hear them mentioned in the same breath as those quarterbacks again.
Yet in baseball, hitting in 56 consecutive games or collecting 4,256 hits over a career remain otherworldly and untouchable achievements. A record brings with it an immortal place in baseball history — a history that extends back farther than any of America’s other pastimes. Baseball’s popularity stems hugely from its connection to the past and the draw of superstars marking their places in history.
Steroids threatened the sanctity of these records, and in the case of Hank Aaron’s home-run record, steroids destroyed the record. Barry Bonds smashed 762 home runs in his career and his name will forever be attached to steroid use. The sacredness of baseball was violated. Home runs became a common sight after Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Bonds, all implicated in steroids scandals, laid Roger Maris’ single-season home-run record of 61 to waste. Steroids also claimed Alex Rodriguez, the youngest player to hit 600 home runs and a three-time MVP.
Steroids wrecked the reputations of some of baseball’s brightest and all-time greatest stars. Yet, in the midst of the “steroid era,” Derek Jeter shined.
Jeter has a flair for the dramatic and made a career of postseason highlights. He led off Game 4 of the Subway Series (the 2000 World Series) with a home run and won World Series MVP. He hit a walk-off home run in Game 4 of the 2001 World Series just minutes after the clock struck midnight and the calendar flipped to November, earning him the nickname Mr. November. And he made arguably the most memorable single play of his generation with “The Flip,” which not only contributed to a playoff victory but also demonstrated the hustle and grit that defined his career.
He accomplished all this while compiling 3,316 hits, the most in the history of baseball’s most historic franchise and the second-most ever for a shortstop, from a position known more for its defensive importance than offensive production. Most importantly, he accomplished all this during the most trying times in baseball’s history with the utmost respect for the game of baseball, never tainting the game by succumbing to the steroid craze.
Baseball will never see another Derek Jeter. No one player may ever represent baseball and a franchise like Jeter did. His integrity, work ethic and leadership stood in great contrast to the era in which he played and even to his teammate, Alex Rodriguez. Thank you, Derek Jeter, for 19 seasons of playing baseball the right way.
For this season (and I really mean this season only), I hope the Yankees clinch a spot in the postseason, despite my personal dislike for the team.
Does Jeter need another postseason or World Series ring? While he might like one, he already has plenty. Does baseball need Jeter in the postseason for one final run? Absolutely.
Michael Peterson’s Giants-crazed editor isn’t sure if he’s more offended by the reference to the 2002 postseason or to Barry Bonds’ “doping.” Remind Michael he now lives in the Bay Area at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @mpetes93.