Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 25, 2014

Jeter’s Magical Exit Yields To Uncertainty In The Bronx

The longest season approaches its final weekend, and this year there is little last-minute drama. In the senior circuit the five playoff teams are known, with the only questions being whether St. Louis or Pittsburgh will claim the Central Division crown, and whether the team that does not or San Francisco will host the Wild Card play-in game. There is only marginally more suspense in the American League, where the Central Division title is also up for grabs and Cleveland and Seattle, on the outside looking in, remain mathematically alive for a Wild Card slot. But the key word there is mathematically, because both squads could be eliminated by the end of play on Thursday.

So on the banks of Lake Erie and the Puget Sound a faint flame of hope still flickers, while in Kansas City and Oakland there is nervous confidence. Meanwhile in Washington, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Baltimore, Anaheim and Detroit, players and fans alike are looking forward to October. As is usually the case when all is said and done, the Great Game’s postseason will include teams that are big spenders, like the Dodgers and Angels, as well as clubs from smaller markets like the Pirates and, most likely, the Royals. The Tigers will be in the playoffs for the fourth year in a row, while the Cardinals will make their tenth appearance this century. At the other extreme it’s been almost three decades since Kansas City fans got to cheer their team on in the playoffs and Baltimore is making just its second appearance in more than a decade and a half. The contestants will include teams that are hot like the Nationals and Pirates; while if as is likely the A’s hold on to a Wild Card slot it will be after staggering through August and September with a record well below .500.

Knowing the teams that are in means we can also identify the franchises that are out, the squads for whom the final three or four contests are for nothing more than pride. For the second year in a row, that list of teams that can offer their faithful only that old Brooklyn lament of “wait until next year” includes the Yankees.

It is a measure of Derek Jeter’s career and of the Yankees’ success during it than when he took the field at The Stadium on Thursday night for New York’s final home game of the season it was the first time he had done so with his team eliminated from the playoffs. In 2008 Jeter and the Yankees were eliminated during a season-ending road trip, after they had closed down the old Stadium. Last year the Captain was on the disabled list for most of the season. While New York was out of the playoffs by the time of their final home game, Jeter’s only role in it was to join Andy Pettitte in walking to the mound to retrieve fellow Core Four member Mariano Rivera after the legendary closer’s final mound appearance.

Seventeen trips to the playoffs in twenty years. Seven World Series appearances, five of which ended with a parade up the Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan. It is a phenomenal record, one that is not likely to be matched anytime soon. Not just in Boston or Chicago or San Francisco, but in the Bronx as well. For Yankee fans the end of an age has arrived, and the future is not promising.

Those of us who have been rooting for the team in pinstripes since Mickey was in his prime know full well that greatness does not come automatically to the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue. We remember the decade that began in the mid-1960s. That was a period when New York fielded some awful teams, lowlighted by the last place Yankees of 1966. There was also the stretch from 1982 to the start of the Core Four era, when New York teams weren’t awful, but were never quite good enough to make the playoffs. We understand the ebb and flow of the Great Game.

The downside of all the success brought to those of us in the stands by Jeter and Rivera, Pettitte and Posada on the field, and by Torre and Girardi in the dugout, is that the notion of a rebuilding period is somewhere between foreign and anathema to a lot of younger Yankee fans. Certainly it was never a concept that the late George Steinbrenner embraced. But Steinbrenner’s insistence that anything less than a championship was a failure ignores reality. In the decade after the Yankees won their fourth championship in five years in 2000, nine different teams won the World Series, and some of the winners promptly missed the playoffs the following season.

What’s worse for New York fans is that over the past few years, while their team has stuck to the Steinbrenner tradition of shelling out big money for top free agents, both the economics of the Great Game and the model for building a successful team have fundamentally changed.

Cable television and regional sports networks have changed the financial playing field. The Yankees were among the pioneers in this area with their YES Network, but now many teams are reaping the financial benefits of massive regional network television contracts. The answer to where baseball’s fattest payroll resides is no longer automatically the Bronx. That means the Yankees are no longer the de facto last stop on every premier free agent’s search for a new team.

In addition, the idea that any team that can afford it should rush to sign that free agent has been replaced by a widespread determination to build strong farm systems, develop a team’s own players, and then sign them to long-term deals before they become eligible for free agency. That approach means each free agent class has fewer true stars. While the Yankees are trying, no team can remake its farm system overnight, and New York’s is in the bottom tier of all 30 major league franchises.

On Thursday night a full house packed the new Stadium to say farewell to a player who has been both great for the Yankees, and great for baseball. In his first at-bat Derek Jeter rose to the occasion, ripping a drive to left that bounced off the top of the wall for an RBI double. In the 7th inning he plated two more with a broken bat grounder.  In the top of the 9th usually reliable closer David Robertson gave up a pair of homers, allowing the Orioles to tie the game.  But of course that was all just to set up one final magical moment for our Captain.  With a runner on second in the last of the 9th, Jeter swung on the first pitch with his signature inside out swing and sent a liner to right, as he has countless times before.  The sharp single, his final hit in the Bronx, scored the winner in a walkoff victory for New York.

For Yankee fans it was one final night of Captain Clutch, piling on top of uncountable others. But come next season, there will be no more Jeter, and no clear idea of who will provide the next great Yankee moment. Those younger fans need to start adjusting to a new reality.

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