The Final Curtain

It’s almost unfathomable that Thursday will be the last time we see Derek Jeter play a game in pinstripes. When he is taken out by Joe Girardi tonight, the adoring Yankee fans who followed him around for 20 years will give him one last standing ovation. The ode to their captain will almost certainly rival the one Orioles fans gave Cal Ripken Jr. when he broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game record or the one Bulls fans gave MJ in his last game at the United Center. Number two will deserve every second of it.

Without Jeter, where would the Yankees be today? Before he was called up to the majors, the franchise had a 12-year playoff drought (1982-93). Wednesday’s mathematical elimination marks just the third season where New York has missed the playoffs in the last 20 years. Everyone knows what the team has done in that stretch; seven World Series appearances and five championships, all with their legendary shortstop leading the way.

The detractors who call the captain’s career overrated are simply blasphemous. No one has ever diminished what Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial or Tris Speaker accomplished in the batter’s box; those five men are the only players with more career hits than Jeter’s 3,461. Those who try to attack his fielding are also short-sighted and lazy; his .9763 fielding percentage is an unimpressive 29th on the all-time list, and his range wasn’t the greatest even in his prime, but he won five Gold Glove Awards and always made the big defensive plays in the playoffs.

Speaking of playoffs, October (and sometimes November) made “Captain Clutch” a legend. In his 158 playoff games (first all-time) he had a .308 batting average with 20 home runs, 61 runs batted in and 111 runs scored. He’s the only player to collect 200 hits in the postseason, which makes sense since he had more plate appearances in those games than anyone else.

The stats speak volumes, but they obviously don’t tell the full story- or even the half of it. The incredible plays and magical moments make Derek Jeter the revered player and person he is today. I heard a lot of storytelling and talk over the airwaves this week about which Jeter play was the most memorable; the discussion is a fun one because it’s so hard to pinpoint just one. There’s the flip against Oakland in 2001, where he disregarded every conformity of the shortstop position to make an unprecedented cutoff play we will likely never see again. There’s his “Mr. November” home run in the ’01 World Series that reinforced his flair for the dramatic as baseball entered uncharted waters. There’s the dive into the stands against the Red Sox in that classic July 2004 game that displayed an innate selflessness and sacrifice not many athletes possess. There’s the “Jeffrey Maier Game,” where he got a little help from a 12-year-old kid to change the Yankees’ fortunes around in the 1996 American League Championship Series. Also, who could forget all the jump throws, line-drive singles through the hole, and many more plays that have made him a future first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Even the play that transcended the game don’t fully illustrate what makes “The Captain” such a beloved icon. Fans fell in love with Jeter for the aura he brought to the city of New York. He has always carried himself in a first-class manner, even referring to the late George Steinbrenner and former manager Joe Torre as “Mr. Steinbrenner” and “Mr. Torre,” not allowing his superstardom to get the best of the manners his mother and father instilled in him. He never got ejected from a game, which is a pretty remarkable feat considering the heated moments he often found himself in the middle of in the two decades he played in the Bronx. He played with notoriously fiery players like Paul O’Neill, Jorge Posada Roger Clemens, Darryl Strawberry and Karim Garcia, yet he was always the calming yet competitive leader, earning him the captain title.

The “steroid era” makes it difficult to completely acquit a player of performance-enhancing drug use, it’s pretty safe to say that Jeter has done things the right way. Many stars cut corners, including some of his teammates, but he never got caught up in the race to get big, opting instead to be a contact hitter with a focus on getting on base. The fact that he was drug-free but still one of the most successful ballplayers of his era will make for a very interesting question when he comes up for Hall of Fame eligibility in 2018: can he be the first to get 100% of the vote? If anyone can garner a unanimous decision, it’s number two.

Scandal-free is always how Jeter has done things, on and off the field. His clean-cut image is even more impressive when you consider that he’s been a public figure in one of the most famous cities in the world for 20 years. 20 years without an arrest, custody battle, picture of outrageous party behavior or TMZ leak. He’s dated some of the most high-profile celebrities America has to offer, and has managed to keep the details private. People who come into his house have to abide by a strict no-camera policy, meaning we have never gotten a look into his home life. Everything we’ve heard about the king of New York’s private life has been unsubstantiated gossip. No Twitter, no Facebook, no access to anything but his on-field product; that’s the Jeter Way.

Tonight’s game is going to be one of the most-watched regular season games in the history of baseball. The atmosphere inside Yankee Stadium is going to be electric. When the most popular player of our generation has his final salvo in the city he called home for two decades, he will leave knowing, like Frank Sinatra he did it his way. What a pleasure it was to watch him play everyday.

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