Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 12, 2013

For Jeter And The Yankees, How Will The Era End?

Labor Day passes, and autumn approaches. Try as one might, one cannot ignore the fact that twilight comes noticeably earlier, as bright summer days begin their inexorable slide into dark winter nights. It is the time when nature reminds fans everywhere that to every season and every career, there comes an ending. In the Bronx, the reminders are stark.

The entire season for the New York Yankees has been one long farewell tour for the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, who announced his decision to retire at the end of the current campaign back in Spring Training. It is a retirement that would likely have already occurred had not Rivera’s 2012 season been cut short in early May of that year by a torn ACL in his right knee. After the freak accident while Mo was shagging fly balls during batting practice in Kansas City, he vowed that his career would not end by being driven off the field in the back of a utility cart.

So he returned for one more year and there has been celebration and tribute for Rivera wherever the Yankees have gone; including at the All-Star Game where Rivera was named the MVP. At age 43 the signature cutter still tails down and away from right-handed batters and in on the hands of left-handers. As this is written Rivera has recorded 43 saves for New York, tied for most in the American League. It is fair to say that without him the Yankees would not still be a factor in the playoff race. But the season has also provided its share of evidence that Rivera’s decision is timely. He has blown 7 save opportunities to date, more than in any year since 2001. That number includes 3 consecutive failures in one stretch for the first time in his career.

Yankees fans have also witnessed what may well be the final season for Andy Pettitte. The left-handed starter turned 41 in June, and he has already retired once, following the 2010 season. But after sitting out 2011 Pettitte decided that he still had something left in the tank, and so renewed his long-running love affair with fans at The Stadium last season. He pitched surprisingly well, recording the second lowest ERA and second highest strikeout rate of his career. But he too lost a substantial part of 2012 when his left ankle got between a sharp line drive and center field in a game against Cleveland. It took Pettitte more than two months to recover from a broken fibula.

The fact that he wound up throwing just 75 innings last year may have made his decision to return in 2013 that much easier. Except for one early season stint on the DL he has carried a full workload this year. But he has been streaky, mixing periods of effectiveness with stretches where he has been unable to escape the first inning without giving up one or more runs. Surely the latter games are a sign of age-diminished skills. His 10 wins this season have pushed his career total past 250, and when he fanned the Twins’ Justin Morneau on July 1st he supplanted Whitey Ford as the Yankees’ all-time strikeout leader. It’s hard to see what Andy Pettitte has left to prove.

But as important as Rivera and Pettitte have been to the Yankees, neither is the face of the franchise. For nearly two decades that role has gone to shortstop Derek Jeter, and so it has been the lost season of the Yankees’ captain that has been the harshest reminder of all that a grand era in the team’s storied history is drawing to a close. On Wednesday the Yankees placed Jeter on the 15-day DL and announced that he would not play again this year, even if the team winds up making the playoffs.

The record book shows that last year’s ALCS between New York and Detroit went four games. But for many Yankees fans the series and the season ended late in Game One, when Jeter fell to the infield dirt at The Stadium with a fractured ankle. He had appeared to have begun the inevitable decline in 2010, when he batted just .270. That continued through the first half of 2011 as he pursued the 3,000th hit of his career. But few players have ever seemed as comfortable under the bright lights of the Gotham stage as Jeter. In early July before a packed house he crossed the 3,000 hit threshold by going 5 for 5 in a game against Tampa Bay. The swing that put him into the record books produced a home run into the left field seats. Over the remainder of the season Jeter hit .329, raising his season average to just shy of .300. In 2012 he led the league in hits with 216 while batting .316. In the ALDS against Baltimore he batted .364. Then with a finality as brutal as it was sudden, he was prone on the infield.

After surgery last October the original hope, probably always unrealistic, was that he would be ready for Opening Day. Instead he was diagnosed with a further crack in the area of the original break and began the season on the DL. When he finally returned in mid-July it was for but a single game before returning to the DL with a strained quad muscle. He returned in late July with New York falling in the standings, the lineup particularly powerless from the right side of the plate. Naturally he homered in his first at-bat. But scarcely a week later Jeter made his third trip to the DL. The only other serious injury of his career occurred in 2003 when Jeter dislocated his shoulder in a collision at third base. Back then he missed 36 games; but back then Jeter was 29. When the Yankees ended Jeter’s season this week it was apparent to everyone that rehabbing a serious injury at age 39 was an entirely different matter.

Jeter holds an $8 million player option for next season, and there is absolutely no indication that he won’t exercise it. In announcing the decision to end his season, GM Brian Cashman was quick to add “I have not watched his last game. No one has.” There is no doubt that the fiercely competitive Yankees captain will want to write a better final chapter than a season with just 17 games played, a .190 batting average, and a wild throw to first in a crucial game against Boston because he couldn’t plant his surgically repaired left leg.

But wanting and doing are two different things. Already the New York Times’ national baseball writer Tyler Kepner has advocated making Jeter the full-time designated hitter next season. Certainly Kepner is not the only fan of the Great Game who knows that teams don’t win championships with a 40-year old playing the physically demanding position on the left side of the infield. One could argue, as Kepner does, that it would be foolish for the Yankees to plan on their captain being the everyday shortstop next season. One could also look at the arc of his career, or even just that part of it that began with the supposed decline in 2010, and know that Derek Jeter is planning on leading his team onto the field next Opening Day.

The history of the Great Game, like that of every sport, is littered with sad tales of athletes who stayed too long, their final efforts a shadowy mockery of performances that once came easily. In the Bronx Mo has sensed that the time has come, and is leaving to deserved adulation. Andy may well also decide that he has given the Yankees everything that he can. After a season that he quite appropriately described as a “nightmare,” Derek will certainly return. But how the captain’s final act will play may well come down to a contest between the inevitability of time and the indomitable strength of one player’s will.

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Responses

  1. As a Mets fan, I can only respect and admire the three great Yankees you wrote about. When all three are finally gone, baseball, not just in N.Y. but around the country, will be a poorer sport for it. I think we’d all like to see Jeter go out with his typical opposite field base-hit in a final late-season game next year, a final moment before the inevitable HOF-induction occurs five years later.
    Nicely done, as always,
    Bill

    • Thanks Bill. I share your desire for Jeter’s final hit, though of course I hope “late-season” translates into late October. I also know how unlikely that is through 2014 given Hal Steinbrenner’s understandable desire to get out from under the luxury tax. Strange times for Yankees fans grown accumstomed to the old man’s ways. But the reality is that every franchise has to reboot from time to time. The Yankees have trotted out 55 different players this season, a franchise record. Cashman and Girardi should get an award just for the fact that the team is somehow still hanging around the Wild Card race.

      Thanks again,
      Mike


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