With Derek Jeter announcing his retirement at the end of the 2014 season, Padre fans lose the last active link to the 1998 World Series.
For many of us 1998 was the best baseball season we've ever experienced; It was hard not to get swept away in the fanfare of the "Race to 62" between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, and the Yankees pursuit of the single season wins record was the sort of team achievement that a true baseball enthusiast could appreciate. Of course in San Diego fans got to experience the best Padres team of all time. It was a special baseball season and I find it hard to imagine we'll ever experience that sort of season again, and as a Padres fan it has always been a matter of pride that we got to play in the World Series that served as the culmination of that legendary season.
Derek Jeter will be the last person who played in that series to put on a uniform and play, putting that 1998 season deep in our rear view mirror and making that run of success for the Padres officially "a really long time ago."
Despite the hoopla surrounding Mariano Rivera's retirement last season, I feel as though Derek Jeter's retirement means a lot more to the sport. Mariano Rivera was always a great player, but I never thought of him as an "icon" in the vein of a Magic Johnson, Wayne Gretzky, or Peyton Manning. Maybe he just has great marketing people, but in my opinion Derek Jeter is that sort of icon. He was the sort of player who it seemed would make a great play every time you watched him, so much so that he made the exceptional seem routine the way only the greats do.
He was the sort of player that sabrmetrics didn't give proper justice to. Analysts and experts would say Nomar Garciaparra, A-Rod, Miguel Tejada, and Jose Reyes were better, but year after year Jeter put up great numbers, made big plays, and never handicapped his team defensively. He created an aura about him akin to the sort of things I read about Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, and Ted Williams as a kid in the library reading through every book I could find about the sport. The kind of majesty reserved more for mythology than the ESPN era could ever allow. He's the closest thing many of us have gotten to experience to the stories that our parents, grandparents, and random strangers at the ballpark would tell about Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle, Willie Stargell, and Babe Ruth. One day people will speak of Jeter that way, in fact they've probably been doing it already for over a decade.
Jeter was placed on this historic pedestal probably right after the 2000 World Series, which he was named the MVP of. He had only played five full seasons, but from that moment on his place in Cooperstown was virtually secured. He spent the remainder of the decade watching as teammates Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Roger Clemens, and Andy Pettitte won awards and received accolades despite using PED's. He watched juiced opponents like Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz break records and surpass his Yankee squad in team success, yet he never said the wrong thing. He kept his mouth shut and did what was best for baseball: He kept playing.
Jeter never won a regular season MVP award, but it's hard not to look back on post-strike baseball in the American League from 1995-2010 and call it the Jeter Era. What he also represents is the sports last ambassador to an age of innocence. He came up right in the middle of the steroid era, his "Rookie of the Year" season coinciding with Ken Caminiti's MVP season, but we never question him as a "juicer." Probably because it would hurt us too much, and in our hearts he means too much to the sport.
So often in sports we hear about guys who "truly love the game" and would "do it for free if they could." That's hard to say about a guy like Jeter who has made so much money in his career, but might be more difficult to watch him over these past twenty years and not feel that way about him. A part of me can't help but think that he announced his retirement now because the Yankees needed something to help mend all blood-loss from the A-Rod debacle. Another part of me thinks this is just another way for Jeter and Steiner Sports to cash out the way they did with Mariano last year. But my heart tells me that he is doing this because he loves the sport, and if announcing his retirement early will get fans back into baseball mode rather than "who got snubbed from the Hall of Fame" and "who is doing steroids" mode then he can deal with the nuisance of answering the same questions in every city he goes to this year, and smile as he's given dumb gifts he doesn't want. Metallica won't perform at his last game, but maybe he'll get Mariah Carey.
As a Padre fan I've had bar-stool debates with Yankee fans over who is better: Tony Gyynn or Derek Jeter. On the field the answer is clear, Tony Gwynn was a better baseball player. Throughout the history of the sport there are a lot of players who were better than Jeter. But batting titles, Gold Gloves, and Silver Sluggers aren't Jeter's legacy.
After the attacks of September 11th, 2001 it felt as though the entire country turned to Derek Jeter to make them forget and in some ways make everything "right" again. Whether you were pulling for the Yankees and the city of New York or you were pulling against the Yankees it was hard not to watch the 2001 World Series and get caught up in the brilliance of Jeter's "Mr. November" run. And while Jeter and the Yankees ultimately fell short of their goal of winning a 4th straight world series, Derek Jeter headed into that winter having just cemented himself as someone bigger than sports.
I'm sure a lot more will be written about this subject as the year goes on, and I'm sure that whatever I just wrote holds little value outside of my own personal feelings, but I figured I'd share with you guys what this news means to me, and I look forward to hearing what some of you feel.