I was seven years old when Derek Jeter played his first game at shortstop for the New York Yankees—by the time his new contract ends I will be at least 26. It’s easy to gloss over those numbers at first because it seems like trivia, but it’s worth letting them sink in.
To put these facts in perspective, here is a brief list of things that have changed in my life over the course of time that Derek Jeter has been the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees: Everything.
I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. Fifteen years is a very long time.
Of course, it’s not just a matter of longevity. For virtually his entire career, Jeter has been the most famous, most prominent, and most beloved player on the Yankees. The Yankees have been Jeter’s team for 15 years,* which is longer than the Bulls were Jordan’s team, and virtually exactly as long as the Yankees were Ruth’s team. But what’s important about Jeter’s career is not just what it means historically, but what it has meant to the grown-up seven-year-old who literally cannot remember a time when rooting for the Yankees was not the same as rooting for Jeter’s team.
*This is largely due to the historical oddity that Jeter happened to join the Yankees when they were an emerging dynasty that, thanks to the retirement of Don Mattingly, lacked a leader.
Almost any memory I have of the Yankees somehow includes Jeter. When I was nine and they made their first World Series run of my lifetime, it was Jeter’s fly ball that was pulled into the stands for a home run. When the Yankees were eliminated from the playoffs the next season, it was Jeter who grounded into the penultimate out of the season. In the magical 1998 season, when Tino Martinez hit a go-ahead grand slam in the seventh inning of Game 1 of the World Series, it was Jeter who scored first from third. Two years later his lead-off home run in Game 4 of the Subway Series kept the Mets from stealing any momentum and helped earn him the World Series MVP. The next year, of course, was the year of The Flip, as well as the year he earned his “Mr. November” moniker.
But Jeter’s postseason heroics often overshadow the day-to-day joys of watching him play throughout the season. He does the proverbial “little things” and he does them consistently. He dives into the stands for foul balls and he grinds out at-bats. He beats throws by a step and avoids bonehead plays.* One reason that Yankee fans have such a hard time accepting the advanced metrics that call Jeter one of the worst defensive shortstops ever is that, when you watch him everyday, he doesn’t ever look or feel like a liability the way most bad defenders do.**
*Also, and this shouldn’t be ignored, Jeter is a really cool guy. He doesn’t sulk or argue with bad calls (usually), and he has avoided controversy throughout his career (unless you count that whole HBP fiasco). He dates really hot actresses, models, and singers. He rarely complains about the tabloid attention this causes, but he also never does anything to fuel it (unlike some New York-area athletes). He is basically what every little kid dreams of becoming when they grow up.
**Although, and a h/t to Tim for pointing this out, the other main reason Yankee fans don’t buy Jeter as a poor defender is because no Yankee fan under 25 can even remember watching anyone else play shortstop every day. I have no basis for comparison.
Basically, rooting for Jeter is a joy, and not just in the way that special treats like birthdays and ice cream are joys—it’s a joy in the way that more mundane things like your family and the sun are joys. These types of things often get overlooked because they are so common, but in many ways they are more fundamental to our happiness.
Of course, we tend to realize this only when these things go absent for a while—we appreciate the sun more after historic blizzards, and we appreciate family more when we haven’t seen them in a while—or when they threaten to disappear forever. So watching Jeter stumble through the last year of his contract was especially disconcerting.
Derek Jeter’s 2010 struggles are already well-documented: He hit 44 points below his career average, his OBP was 45 below his average, and his advanced defensive metrics, after an increase in ’09, reverted back to pedestrian status. It was hands down the worst season of his career, and no other season is particularly close. All at once Jeter seemed to age: Just a year after finishing third in the MVP voting (and he probably should have finished second), some people were saying the Yankees should let him go.
And because all of this happened in a contract year, that became a semi-serious possibility. It never quite seemed like Jeter was ready to leave the Yankees, but as negotiations this off-season became contentious it felt like a nasty divorce, with each fan forced to take a side: Who do you think is right, Jeter or the team? How much do you think Jeter is worth? What do the Yankees “owe” Jeter? Hasn’t he been paid enough? How many more years can Jeter really play?
Answering these questions is important, but it’s not fun. After all, sports fandom is often based on illusions. We delude ourselves into thinking that the joy of winning will be worth the hours of agony we put in to get there, only to realize that the satisfaction reached when your team wins is a fleeting, insufficient one—it pales in comparison to the more common pain of losing. And yet we still invest huge portions of our time, money, energy, and passion into teams that we have no personal stake in.
Even worse, the entire idea of rooting for a team is based on an abstraction. Chuck Klosterman explained how any rational person would approach the traditional sports fandom:
“I have no idea why my feelings about an organization twenty years ago should have any effect on how I think now. The modern Celtics have different players, a different coach, a different offense, a different management, different ownership, and they play in a different arena; the only similarity between these two squads is that they both wear green and they both used the same parquet floor.”
As a fan, that statement seems silly, since it seems wrong to equate a team with its flooring. But at the same time, what does constitute the essence of the teams we root for? I don’t root for the Yankees manager, or their owner, or their stadium, or their organizational structure, so it doesn’t really matter that all these things have changed since I was kid; I root for the players, and since I was seven, that has meant rooting for Derek Jeter.
And yet, when forced to answer questions about Jeter’s contract, I kept coming down against Jeter. Even though I expect Jeter to bounce back in 2011, I don’t see how a team can make a long-term investment in an aging shortstop whose best years certainly seem to be behind him. The Yankees have paid Jeter handsomely already, so they don’t owe him for his past services. Jeter could not get much on the open market, so the Yankees had no incentive to up their offer.
In fact, I had to conclude that the Yankees would probably be better off to let Jeter go completely. After all, even a replacement-level player is capable of matching the 90 OPS+ Jeter put up last year. Even if the replacement’s offense were even worse (say, an 85 OPS+), the fact that Joe Girardi wouldn’t feel obligated to bat him leadoff, where Jeter bats, would give him fewer at-bats and result in fewer outs. Meanwhile, even an average-fielding shortstop would be an upgrade defensively, meaning the net effect of replacing Jeter would likely be positive. And we haven’t even factored in price…*
*We also haven’t factored in intangibles, of course, because by their very nature they can’t be quantified. I’m not denying their existence, or denying that Jeter has them, but I can only deal with what I know.
I realized something else, though, when I thought about life without Jeter: If and when Jeter ultimately leaves the team, I will like the Yankees less. I won’t stop rooting for the team or caring if they win, but I will certainly enjoy the team less, because one of the cherished illusions of my fandom will be broken. For the last 15 years, I have been able to tell myself that the Yankees are Jeter’s Team, because he has always been there and he’s always been their leader. But the Yankees are not Jeter’s Team—he is just an employee, and one day he’ll be gone. The Yankees are owned by the Steinbrenners, and run by Brian Cashman, and managed by Girardi, and even those things aren’t permanent. Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for an empty uniform.
But for now, and for at least three more years, I root for Jeter’s Team. I intend to enjoy it, but the end is in sight, and I’m not looking forward to getting there.