The last thing Derek Jeter needs is another flowery tribute from me, or anyone else.
Jeter will leave baseball completely unburdened by under-appreciation. Indeed, he is the most venerated athlete of his generation, to such a hyperbolic degree that a term was invented — “Jeter-ation” — to characterize the over-the-top praise often heaped his way.
But that doesn’t mean he’s not worthy of bountiful respect, admiration and, heck, even a little gushing as he takes his farewell tour around the majors. Because Jeter was indeed a spectacular ballplayer even without embellishment. And he has been a towering figure of grace and dignity for 20 years.
See, there I go. But there’s always been something about the guy that makes you go a little overboard. Maybe it was the fact he managed to thrive in the largest media market without ever having the hint of scandal or indiscretion. That’s no mean feat, especially with a dating life that was, shall we say, star-studded.
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You hear a lot about how Jeter “played the game the right way,” which might be a vague concept, subject to personal interpretation. But no one can argue he didn’t live up to his own definition of the term, offered Tuesday night in a dugout news conference.
“You try to have respect for your teammates, your opponents, the fans, the media,’’ he said. “You try to play hard every day. I’ve tried to do that my entire career. People appreciate that, and when they appreciate that it makes you feel good.”
Like Mariano Rivera last year in his valedictory, Jeter is awash in appreciation these days. The Mariners did it up right before the game Tuesday as he embarks on his final series here, barring a postseason matchup (yeah, I know that’s a pipe-dream; the Yankees probably don’t have the horses).
In a ceremony featuring old adversaries Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner, and current ones Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano, the Mariners presented Jeter with a chair from the Kingdome, where he made his major-league debut May 29, 1995, and a $5,000 check to his Turn 2 Foundation.
The Mariners also will give Jeter an inscribed base from his final game at Safeco.
His old teammate, Cano, presented Jeter with a personal gift, a watch inscribed, “To Derek, Thank you for showing me how to be a leader. With love and respect, RC.”
It so happened that Jeter’s parents, Charles and Dot, were on hand for the ceremony, causing Jeter to recall with a smile the night of his first major-league game.
“My dad and I tried to get something to eat, and everything was closed,’’ he said. “So we ended up walking to a McDonald’s after the game. He’s here again today… so maybe we’ll go to McDonald’s after the game.”
Asked what he remembered about that Kingdome debut, Jeter answered promptly: “I was 0 for 5.”
That drought didn’t last long. Jeter got his first two hits the next night in Seattle, and 3,368 after that, heading into the game Tuesday, when he lined base hit No. 3,371 in the first inning. Then No. 3,372 came in the eighth, a ground-rule double that led to Jeter scoring the go-ahead run that beat the Mariners 3-2.
Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon was marveling beforehand over the sheer volume of Jeter’s numbers — the nearly 11,000 at-bats, the 531 doubles, and on down the line.
“For me, it’s emotional,’’ McClendon said. “This is really the last time we’re going to see Derek Jeter play live. I’m honored … For me, for the last 20 years, Derek Jeter has been everything that’s right about the game of baseball.”
The undeniable fact is that Jeter is a shadow of the player who helped the Yankees win five World Series titles.
Sabermetricians will tell you the decline started, at least defensively, long before the vast majority of fans realized it.
He turns 40 later this month; it happens. In his prime, and it was a long one, Jeter was everything you could have wanted in a shortstop. Jeter gave an emphatic “no” when asked if he has second-guessed his decision, announced in February, to retire after the season.
“I didn’t just wake up one morning and make that decision,’’ he said. “A lot of thought went into it.”
He is the last link to those great Yankee teams that ruled the baseball world for so long. Jorge Posada left three years ago, Andy Pettitte and Rivera after last season.
“It will be strange next year,’’ admitted Yankee manager Joe Girardi.
Girardi keeps penciling in Jeter’s name in the two-hole of a Yankees lineup struggling to score runs. After a 2-for-3 night, Jeter is hitting .259 with an on-base percentage of .319 and slugging percentage of .310. Those last two numbers pale beside his career standards of .380 and .444.
Girardi said he believes Jeter will eventually summon the form that preceded the ankle injury that virtually wiped out his 2013 season.
“He’s always been a guy that’s responded during the course of time,’’ Girardi said.
Time always wins, of course. But whether he rebounds or not, Jeter will have earned the reverence of a generation of young players. By, yes, playing the game the right way.
“Obviously, when you look at a baseball player who’s been a role model on and off the field, he’s probably No. 1,’’ Seattle’s Brad Miller said. “Guys my age, I’ve grown up only knowing Derek Jeter playing shortstop for the Yankees. He’s kind of the gold standard.”
Probably not. But if it is, we’re going to allow it.
Jeter vs. the Mariners
|Yankees SS Derek Jeter has played just over a season’s worth of games vs. Seattle (note: his .283 batting average is his lowest against any AL opponent):|
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146