By In Stuff

Life Without Jeter

Well, that was exhausting. This whole baseball offseason — and by baseball’s historical standards we have barely even started — has been a whirlwind, but Saturday night’s game, Yankees-Tigers, New York, N.Y., that was something else. There’s a difference between epic baseball games. This postseason has proven that. Friday’s elimination game between Washington and St. Louis was a wild series of thrills and spills, a safe lead, a slow comeback, a safer lead, a hard comeback, a city waving red towels about to celebrate, a city in despair. I compared it to Raiders of the Lost Ark and that still feels right to me. It was a wild show, at times even ridiculous, and if you weren’t a Washington Nationals fan you could eat popcorn to it.

Saturday’s game … well, that was different. There was not a game for popcorn. That was a game for a bottle of whiskey with two glasses. Saturday’s game was a Russian novel, intricate, bewildering, filled with heavy human themes, drenched in mortality issues and so labyrinthine you needed to turn to the front of the book just to remember which character was which.

Here’s when I knew: When the game ended, TBS went to their three-expert panel, and the question was asked: What was the biggest story tonight? And my mind detonated. Stories? Wow. A million of them. Well, let’s see.

• There was the public humiliation of Alex Rodriguez. It seemed to me that when Joe Girardi pinch-hit for A-Rod with the Yankees down four runs in the eighth, that was a breaking point. It was strange enough this postseason pinch-hitting for A-Rod twice at the end with the Yankees needing a long ball, but hey, there were righty-lefty match-ups to consider, and Girardi was going deep for a Hail Mary, and A-Rod would have to admit he’s struggling. It was strange enough benching A-Rod for Game 5 of the Orioles series, but again, everyone was expecting a low-scoring game, A-Rod would be available to pinch-hit, it wasn’t exactly a benevolent move, but maybe everyone could work through it.

The pinch-hit move Saturday, though, that was a direct and unequivocal statement to A-Rod: I have lost all faith in you. Maybe Girardi simply wanted to shield A-Rod from more boos. Maybe Girardi had seen enough of A-Rod’s moping around after his awful looking at-bats. Maybe Girardi simply knows that A-Rod is utterly useless now and felt like, even down four runs, he’d seen enough. Whatever the case, that pinch-hit felt like the big move. A-Rod has five years, $114 million left on his contract with the Yankees, and while you can’t worry about such things in the heat of the postseason, it will be waiting there breathing fire when the postseason ends.

• There was the definition of insanity* decision to just keep pitching Jose Valverde. Wow. Jose Valverde. I don’t know, maybe Jim Leyland could have pulled him after the home run to Ichiro. Maybe he could have pulled him after that ridiculous walk to Mark Teixeira where Valverde threw nothing but outside pitches even though the entire Detroit infield was pulled further right than Ayn Rand (or, from the defense’s perspective, further left than Michael Moore). Maybe he could have …

*Most people attribute the quote to Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and to expect different results.” Like about 83% of all famous quotes, there’s no proof the famous person ever really said it. 

Maybe he could have just realized that Jose Valverde did not have a good year and that sticking with him as a conventional closer against all evidence isn’t exactly leadership. Leyland did not have to fall for the trap in the first place. The Tigers led by four going into the ninth. It wasn’t a save situation.

Leyland could have matched up. He could have started with Valverde but had people warming up just in case — coming off Valverde’s last outing, when he gave up like two million runs and three million hits to the A’s in one-third of an inning, nobody could have blamed him.

One of Leyland’s great attributes is his loyalty to players. It’s an admirable trait, and I have every reason to believe it’s a big part of why players come together for him. But, at some point, you owe it to your player and his teammates to pull the plug.

• There was the latest surreal heroics from baseball’s latest surreal hero, Raul Ibanez, who, if I’m getting this right, is five-foot nothing, 100 and nothing, hardly a speck of athletic ability, he had come out of a field of corn with things to settle, he had studied the way the Italians raced bicycles so he could find his own identity, he had just lost to the Soviets 10-3, he had trained hard running on the beach, trained hard pounding meat in a meat locker, trained hard by washing and waxing cars, he understood non-linear thinking, he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth, he took pride in never going down, and he walked into the poolroom with his leather satchel and just wanted to win for all the small schools that never got a chance to be there, just wanted to abide by what is written, just wanted to score four touchdowns for his little brother, just wanted to say he loved Brian Piccolo, just wanted to bring his racially split community together, just wanted to escape from the camp, and so he never went down, would not accept the intentional walk, he swung away, and he hit the home run against the lights, he hit the shot over the water, he pulled away in the match race, he bent the shot around the goalkeeper, he did not lay off the high one, he  …

• There was Derek Jeter, falling awkwardly, shattering his ankle, ending his season, the first serious injury of his remarkable career, the first time the Yankees, as we know them, have to win in the postseason without the Captain.

There was so much happening, so many stories, the one-third-empty and booing Yankee Stadium, the suddenly great defense of Jhonny Peralta, the sudden appearance (and just in the nick of time) of a 23-year-old lefty named Drew Smyly, the travails of manager Jim Leyland quitting smoking, the grand struggles of Nick Swisher, the …

“So what’s the story of the night?” the question went.

“Delmon Young,” panelist and former pitcher David Wells said.

Exactly, see the … I’m sorry, wait a minute, what? Delmon Young? Because he hit a home run? Because he hit the ball that Nick Swisher misplayed? Delmon Young? That’s like saying Johnny Two-Times was the star of “Goodfellas.” That’s like saying Rube Walker was the star of the Giants Win The Pennant game because of his scratch single in the seventh and that he called the pitch Bobby Thomson hit out. Delmon Young? On this night?

Back here on Mother Earth, the talk was Jeter … and the talk was a eulogy. Watching Jeter go down and stay down as he tried to field a ball to his left — the play that has long been his nemesis — was grave television. Yankees manager Joe Girardi was insistent that the shattered ankle was not career threatening, but Jeter is 38 and at that age a mosquito bite, acid indigestion or a particularly violent sneeze can be career threatening.

Still, the thought was not of the end, but of the beginning. Derek Jeter played in his first Yankees postseason game in 1996 — three weeks before the O.J. Simpson civil trial began. He hit ninth in the order, and he went one-for-four (a ground ball single up the middle), and of course nobody had any idea yet what he would become.

People forget, that 1996 Yankees team was a mishmash of old Steinbrenner and new. Tim Raines, Wade Boggs, Darryl Strawberry and Mariano Duncan were all in the lineup that day* — a not-so-subtle reminder of the 1980s and early 1990s when the Yankees acquired every Steve Kemp, Don Baylor, John Montefusco, Jack Clark and Steve Sax in some sort of madcap effort to turn back time, Cher style.

*So was Joe Girardi. Cecil Fielder was in the lineup the next day.

But there were other players in the lineup that day — Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez — and they would be at the heart of a new kind of Yankees dynasty. The next day a 24-year-old lefty, Andy Pettitte started, and a 26-year-old former starter, Mariano Rivera, threw 2 2/3 scoreless innings. The next day, Derek Jeter got three hits.

It all seems preordained now — what with the $200 million payrolls and all — but the Yankees did not have to become the Yankees again. They almost traded away Rivera. Other than Jeter, their drafting was stupefyingly bad — Brien Taylor, Matt Drews, Brian Buchanan, Shea Morenz, these were their first round picks. They were still owned by George Steinbrenner, who was still driven by the same tendencies as always, win now, win at whatever cost — he wanted every David Cone, Dwight Gooden, Kenny Rogers, David Wells, Hard-Hittin’ Mark Whiten, Pete Incaviglia, Chili Davis the Yankees could find.

But now it worked, and while it’s tempting to give Jeter too much credit for that — so tempting we all do it, some with more enthusiasm than others — it also seems true that his timing was impeccable. When the Yankees needed youth, he was young. When the Yankees needed constancy, he was there every day. When the Yankees needed leadership, he was the Captain. And, all along, when the Yankees needed an example, he provided one. Run out every ball. Be shrewd on every play. Talk to reporters after every game (and tell them nothing). There wasn’t a doubt about what it meant to be a New York Yankee — hey, you’re new here, welcome to the Yankees, see No. 2 over there? Go and do likewise.

Of course he wasn’t flawless. His defensive talents were always up for debate. He struck out a lot. He made mistakes, plenty of them, of course he did, nobody, not even DiMaggio, threw to the right base every time. His ability to perform in the clutch was glorified, though in truth he was exactly the same in the clutch as he was the rest of the time.

But, over time, he came to represent his team in a way only a handful of other players ever have — Brooks Robinson and his Orioles teams, Stan Musial and his Cardinals teams, Mickey Mantle and his Yankees teams, Joe DiMaggio and his Yankee teams, Babe Ruth and his Yankees teams. Off the top of the head, any baseball fan can quickly come up a half dozen images of Jeter — the flip play, the dive into the stands, the Mr. November homer, any number of jump throws from short, any numbers of bloops to right field as he fought off an inside fastball. To see him on the ground Saturday night, stretched out, not writhing in pain but instead barely moving at all, it was as if a box of memories opened up, and at the same time that the announcers wondered aloud how the Yankees might go on without Jeter, I tried to imagine how a Yankees team would even LOOK without Derek Jeter at shortstop. It’s been so long, I cannot even remember.

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35 Responses to Life Without Jeter

  1. rtt281 says:

    Wow Joe – such brilliant writing. Thank you.

  2. I’m curious as to why Wells felt Young was the story of the night.

    I agree about this game being borderline Russian lit. When have so many different storylines intersected in one baseball game?

  3. Phil Jones says:

    Because Wells is a blithering idiot. Nice writing Joe.

    • Fred Urshgur says:

      Young knocked in runs in 3 different innings. OK, maybe not the biggest or best story, but the biggest factor in the Tigers winning. You can have your dramatic narratives all day long. In Motown, we’ll take the win.

  4. I’m voting for 4 quartets as a winning style, at least in this amazing post-season … nails! for this one.

  5. Something is wrong with the whole OJ reference. That trial started and ended in Jan-Oct 1995. Jeter’s first postseason game was in 1996.

    Otherwise, great as always, Joe.

  6. B.E. Earl says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. David says:

    In the Derek Jeter era (beginning in 1996, since he didn’t play in 1995, and ending yesterday, when Jeter DID play in the game, at least at the beginning), the Yanks have gone 97-61… in the POSTSEASON. They play pennant-winning-quality ball when they’re playing other pennant winners. That’s remarkable consistency. I don’t think it says anything truly remarkable about Jeter as a player or a competitor or a human being or anything like that. It’s just supremely interesting.

    • Rob Smith says:

      It should be no surprise that the Yankees have such a great post season record. They have routinely had the highest paid team, typically double or more than average teams. This has nothing to do with Jeter, except that he has been one of the highest paid players on the highest paid team for over a dozen years. But, although Jeter is a great player, baseball teams don’t win because of one guy. In the case of the Yankees, they have broken the bank to get Granderson, Teixeira, ARod, Sabathia and to retain Jeter, and will have to again to retain Cano next year. They also paid Nick Swisher $10M this past year & will have to open up their wallets if they wish to retain him too. The Tigers are beating the Yankees with only three such players in their lineup.

    • Dinky says:

      The thing is, Rob, average teams tend not to win the World Series. Only one of eight teams (ten, now) wins it all each year. The Yankees have won 5/16 World Series since Jeter joined them. And in all those years, the Yankees knew they were getting .838 from their shortstop, better numbers than they got during the regular season even though, as a whole, the pitchers they faced were much better. Teams tend not to make the playoffs unless they have decent pitching, don’t you know. That’s not small sample size, that’s more than a full season’s worth of PA. And Jeter not just matches but exceeds what he normally does (not by a ton, but by 9 OPS points) against better competition. I hate the Yankees, but admire Jeter. It’s a lot easier to win in the postseason when your shortstop is going to play every game and give you excellent top of the lineup production, for sixteen years. Jeter’s a reason to root for the team I hate, and their success has to do with his ability to elevate his game postseason.

  8. LargeBill says:

    Before getting into the Jeter stuff, you touched on an odd bit of Yankee nonsense – the treatment of Alex Rodriguez. Is he perfect? No. Is he slumping during a time? Sure. However, it is hardly as if he is the only Yankee (Or Oriole or Nat, etc) to have a rough stretch recently. A playoff series is the classic definition of a small sample size. A-Rod is as likely to have a couple good games coming up as he is to have the slump continue. Or rather he WAS as likely. After being treated like he is to blame for all of his team’s problems who knows? I would not be surprised after this episode to see the Yankees attempt to move him in the off season. Based on how they handled this they’d have to eat most of the contract. As a fan of a different team it will be fun to watch this drama play out.

    • Rob Smith says:

      ARod’s decline post steroids, post second ridiculous 10 year contract, was entirely predictiable. The first contract was a huge boat anchor to the Rangers who now thank God for his mercy every day that the Yankees took him off their hands. I don’t see how the Yankees get rid of this deal. Not only is their the money issue, but the length of the contract runs until he’s 42. He’ll be completely useless for 3-5 years of that deal. That could be next year based on the trending of his numbers

  9. As someone older than you who watched the Orioles play in the 60s and 70s, I never would have identified those teams as “Brooks Robinson’s team.” His longevity with one team is undeniable, but he was not the center of things with the Orioles as Jeter appears to be with the Yankees. Brooks got a lot of national attention for some spectacular fielding plays in the postseasons (69-71), but the focus of those teams and the 66 champion was Frank Robinson first, starting pitching second, and Boog Powell third.

    • Rob Smith says:

      I’d put the starting pitching first, defense second and the three run homerun (Frank Robinson & Powell) third. But yeah, the rest of the players were role players. Brooks was really a role player too, with his role being to completely shut down the left side of the infield, along with Mark Belanger. Brooks Robinson was an average hitter, outside of about three seasons (one an MVP year in 1964).

    • Dinky says:

      Yeah, Brooks was amazing defensively, but he wasn’t amazing at shortstop or centerfield, and he wasn’t amazing offensively, barely above average for his career, one short four year streak of excellence (OPS+ 120 or above) from 27-30. I’d call those teams Weaver’s before Brooks. Frank Robinson didn’t show up until 1966, hardly counts. If you want to pick a team’s identity, how about Koufax’s Dodgers?

  10. brhalbleib says:

    The story from the Tigers angle has to be that Leyland must find a way, with the game on the line and the middle of the order up for the Yankees (Cano, Teixeira, Ibanez, actually you could throw Ichiro in there as well), and especially when playing in the band box they call Yankee Stadium, to have Phil Coke on the mound. Anything else would be ridiculous. Which, btw, he did in Game 2.

  11. Leyland’s decision to stay with Valverde after the Teixeira walk remains unconsionable, no matter the outcome of the game

    I felt the same way about Johnson staying with Storen after the score was tied–how can you stay with the closer after he’s already blown the save?

    But Leyland made Johnson look savvy in comparison. Everyone in the park, everyone watching back in Detroit knew that if you gave Valverde the chance to blow the save, he would do so.

    And he did.

    • Rob Smith says:

      It’s understandable the managers would play it that way, sticking with the closer, during the regular season. Most times it works out, and why burn another arm in one out of 162 games? What I don’t understand is managers continuing to manage critical playoff games that way. There needs to be a bigger sense of urgency. It’s not like Valverde’s been lights out this year. He’s been pretty terrible, actually. I think they needed to have the bullpen up for potential matchups as soon as there was the first inkling of trouble. Why is that so hard to understand?

    • Rob Smith says:

      BTW: this is exactly how Bobby Cox managed the Braves in the 90s. Great for the regular season. Consistent, predictable, everyone knows their role. But sometimes, you need to pull Greg Maddux early. Sometimes you need to pinch hit for David Justice. But he would just never do it. You need to be willing to make quick changes to win championships. As much as I dislike Tony LaRussa, he was never afraid to have a quick hook, pinch hit for a struggling player, go with the hot hand or do something completely unpredictable. That’s how you win in the playoffs.

    • Jared says:

      I don’t know how many sentences I’ve started off with, “As much as I dislike Tony LaRussa…”

  12. Joe says:

    Sorry, I got stuck on the Raul Ibanez bullet point. I mean, seriously jaw-on-the-floor stuck the longer it kept going.

    Rudy: “five-foot nothing, 100 and nothing, hardly a speck of athletic ability…”

    Field of Dreams: “…he had come out of a field of corn with things to settle…”

    Breaking Away?: “…he had studied the way the Italians raced bicycles so he could find his own identity…”

    The real-life Miracle On Ice and to a lesser extent the movie I’m guessing: “…he had just lost to the Soviets 10-3…”

    Various Rocky movies?: “…he had trained hard running on the beach, trained hard pounding meat in a meat locker…”

    Karate Kid: “…trained hard by washing and waxing cars…”

    Bull Durham: “…he understood non-linear thinking…”

    The Pride of the Yankees: “…he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth…”

    No idea: “…he took pride in never going down…”

    The Hustler: “… and he walked into the poolroom with his leather satchel…”

    Hoosiers: “…and just wanted to win for all the small schools that never got a chance to be there…”

    No idea: “…just wanted to abide by what is written…”

    Something for Joey (remembered the story from the JoePa book, didn’t know the movie name): “…just wanted to score four touchdowns for his little brother…”

    Brian’s Song: “…just wanted to say he loved Brian Piccolo…”

    Common theme, but no idea: “…just wanted to bring his racially split community together…”

    The Great Escape: “…just wanted to escape from the camp…”

    No idea: “…so he never went down…”

    No idea: “…would not accept the intentional walk…”

    No idea: “…he swung away…”

    The Natural: “…he hit the home run against the lights…”

    Golf movie, so I haven’t seen it: “…he hit the shot over the water…”

    No idea: “…he pulled away in the match race…”

    Bend It Like Beckham?: “…he bent the shot around the goalkeeper…”

    Generic, or a reference I missed?: “…he did not lay off the high one …”

    I count 24 or 25 (if the Rocky one counts as two), with about a third of ’em ones I didn’t catch. Anyone want to help out?

    • Nice job. My stab at the missing:

      Raging Bull “…he took pride in never going down…”

      Heaven Can Wait: “…just wanted to abide by what is written…”

      Not 100% sure — maybe Remember the Titans? “…just wanted to bring his racially split community together…”

      Raging Bull again: “…so he never went down…”

      Bad News Bears: “…would not accept the intentional walk…”

      Signs: “…he swung away…”

      Tin Cup: “…he hit the shot over the water…”

      Seabiscuit: “…he pulled away in the match race…”

      A League of Their Own: “…he did not lay off the high one …”

    • KCJoe says:

      I think

      Chariots of Fire:”he had trained hard running on the beach”

      The ONLY Rocky of any value: “trained hard pounding meat in a meat locker”

    • Rob Smith says:

      I thought League of their Own was “There’s no crying in baseball!!”

    • Dinky says:

      The final home run was the one time Lori Petty’s character actually caught up with a high hard one in League of their Own. A great movie can have more than one tag line.

      I’d have thrown in “And it’s in the hole.”

  13. Dan Davis says:

    “*Most people attribute the quote to Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and to expect different results.”

    This often-cited quote is annoying and incorrect, no matter who first said it.

    Doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results is the definition of stupidity.

    The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over because the voices in your head tell you to.

  14. Hank Cole says:

    I’d always heard the “definition of insanity” quote attributed to Alcoholics Anonymous. Which makes a lot more sense than Einstein. (A couple of twentieth century figures—Einstein, Carlin—get attributed many more quotes than they actually deserve credit for. Or as Yogi put it, “I never said most of the things I said.”)

  15. Ed McDonald says:

    I thought Leyland brought Valverde in because it wasn’t a save situation. I think he thought even a Valverde who has been throwing batting practice pitches couldn’t blow a four run lead.

    I do not want to see Leyland make the same mistake the Phillies made with Wild Thing when they lost to the Blue Jays. You don’t stick with the horse that got you there if that horse is currently lame.

  16. David in NYC says:

    “But, over time, he came to represent his team in a way only a handful of other players ever have — Brooks Robinson and his Orioles teams, Stan Musial and his Cardinals teams, Mickey Mantle and his Yankees teams, Joe DiMaggio and his Yankee teams, Babe Ruth and his Yankees teams.”

    And you couldn’t get Chipper Jones into that sentence? I guess it’s probably because he didn’t get much press for his farewell season, huh? I think that’s a gross oversight.

    Especially since Chipper has done all those “captain-y” “for the good of the team” things that St. Derek never did or would do.

    Play a different position to make the team better? Chipper volunteered to move off 3B and played ZERO games there in 2002 and 2003; St. Derek is still the worst-fielding starting SS in MLB history, and wouldn’t even hear of changing positions when A-Rod (a greatly superior SS) was signed.

    Hit at a differnt spot in the lineup to make the team better? This season alone, Chipper batted in every position except leadoff, while Derek pouted any time it was suggested he should hit anywhere other than leadoff (and has a total of 3 PA at any other lineup spot in the last two years).

    Rework his contract and/or take less money for the good of the team? In 2005, Chipper reworked his contract (among other things, giving up $5 million in incentive bonuses). St. Derek had a cow when it was even suggested by Brian Cashman that the Yankees didn’t have endless supplies of money to sign his new contract last year.

    Support his teammates in their times of trouble? I am not aware of Chipper ever saying in public anything derogatory about a member of Braves organization. Jeter, OTOH, had no problem defending Andy Pettitte over his steroid use, but threw A-Rod under the bus.

    Yes, Jeter is a mortal lock first-ballot HoF player (and should be). But he surely isn’t the saint he’s made out to be (Joe, you were the creator of “jeterate”, you should know). And I find it particularly galling that he’s trumpeted as the Second Coming while Chipper doesn’t even rate a mention from you (not to single you out, Joe, most of the media acts the same way).

  17. Dinky says:

    Not particularly a Braves fan, but agree that Chipper is a superb choice for a team identifier. Also agree that the Yankees would have won more games with ARod at short and Jeter somewhere else (probably second). And what about Ripken’s O’s?

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