by Sean Begin
The very first time I watched baseball was in 1998. It was the first sport I ever got into. No one in my family had any interest in it, my curiosity was piqued by a family friend.
So when I decided to pick a team to root for, the decision was easy. It was ’98. The Yankees were the best team in baseball all season long. They couldn’t stop winning. As a nine-year-old, that was reason enough for me to root for them.
“Who roots for a loser?” said nine-year-old me.
Fast forward to Sunday, when Derek Jeter swung a bat for the last time: an infield chopper to third that resulted in a single and an RBI. Quite Jeter-ian, to borrow the phrase.
I have never known a Yankees team without Derek Jeter. I’ve been spoiled, really, getting to watch him play. I imagine it’s how people felt watching Ted Williams or Mickey Mantle retire.
It’s been a season filled with cheap gifts and donations to Jeter’s Turn 2 Foundation — a season-long love fest for Jeter that’s made me sort of sick. But, as he walked off the field Sunday afternoon, I understood why he did it.
The game is always bigger than the people who play it. But Jeter is one of those once-in-a-generation players that seems to elevate himself above it.
Yes, he was never the most defensively gifted shortstop. Yes, he struggled when ranging to his right. No, he didn’t win a major offensive award, although looking back, it’s pretty obvious he should have been named MVP on 1999.
A quick note about that season: Jeter finished sixth in MVP voting in ’99 behind Ivan Rodriguez, Pedro Martinez, Roberto Alomar, Manny Ramirez and Rafael Palmeiro. He had a better WAR than every player on that list except Pedro. He was also the only one to break 200 hits. But this did come at a time when the steroid-filled long ball dominated the sport.
So, no: Jeter was never exceptional on a year-to-year basis. Even during his prime, he probably wasn’t the best shortstop in the game. But, unlike his peers Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra, Jeter managed longevity.
And, he managed to keep his image clean — often more important in New York than the play on the field. Yeah, he dated. A lot. If that’s the worst thing you can say about Jeter, I guess he did all right.
Where Jeter really stands above most of the former baseball greats, though, was the position he took as a leader on the team. He worked tirelessly year in and year out. And to kids growing up watching baseball in the 1990s, he was the player to look up to.
Just ask Xander Bogaerts, a young shortstop for the Red Sox who wears number two on his jersey in honor of Jeter. He was there with David Ortiz when the Red Sox presented Jeter with his going away gifts in his final game in Fenway Park.
And for me, a young kid who fell in love with one of America’s oldest sports, who picked a team because all they did was win, Jeter was the one who showed me what passion really is.
So thanks for the memories, Jeter. Thanks for great moments on the field and the funnier moments off of them. Thanks for caring more about the fans and the game than anything else.