Anyone who has had the benefit of watching New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter play since he was called up 1995 may have viewed the scene early morning Sunday with a big lump in their throat — I know I did. I’m not saying I was moved to tears, I’m not quite that dramatic; but there was something of a feeling of extreme loss watching the lifeblood of the team being lifted off the field by his manager (a former teammate mind you) and the team trainer.
Being that it was unfolding in the middle of an American League Championship Series game made even more of an impact. With multiple issues already surrounding the team despite reaching the ALCS, just about the last thing the Yankees needed was to lose Jeter — as much because of his performance this season which transcended into the postseason, but because of everything he embodies in the clubhouse.
Jeter has never been about “Rah Rah Yankees” in his time before or during his captaincy. Teammates have always noted that he’s displayed his leadership with his work ethic and demeanor on the field. Some media and those outside of New York have often time questioned Jeter’s lack of headline grabbing where it concerns rallying the team. He is straight and to the point with the media to the extent that he’s a pretty boring interview.
I’ve always noticed a bit of dissent among many outside of New York, or those who are not Yankees fans, about Jeter. Those people think he gets too many calls, he complains too much on balls/strikes (admittedly it has gotten worse) and that he’s just not as good as advertised. Many have written off some of his accomplishments as a player as being a part of a much grander team than any other organization could put together. I’m not sure how anyone can write off 3,304 hits (plus another 200 postseason knocks), but there are those that do.
Everyone is welcome to their opinions and I’m not going to delve further into it here. But, what I found most interesting in the hours after Jeter was injured in Game 1 of the ALCS was the outpouring of negativity from non-Yankees fans. I’m not suggesting I expected people to give any sympathy to Jeter and certainly not to the Yankees; but what was most obnoxious was the number of people who were outwardly happy that he got hurt as well as those that couldn’t understand why Yankees fans were so upset that Jeter was hurt.
For those who actually took joy in a person getting injured, well there is nothing to say to you other than you’ve got issues. Then I started to think about why non-Yankee baseball fans would have such a hard time understanding why Yankees fans were in such shock about Jeter getting hurt and being carried off the field. These people didn’t go so far as to revel in Jeter’s injury but rather took to making fun of the level of concern that Yankees fans showed after he was helped off by Joe Girardi and Steve Donohue.
Here is the reason; there are few players in Major League Baseball who embody a franchise to the extent that Derek Jeter does. I’m guessing Joe Mauer does for the Twins? Cal Ripken Jr. did. There may be others. It is partially due to tenure with their clubs. It doesn’t happen all that often anymore that a player stays with one organization for his entire career. Jeter was drafted a Yankee and will more than likely retire a Yankee. It’s hard to believe that there are some young adults who don’t know a Yankee team without Jeter on it. They are lucky.
Fans my age a have a special appreciation for Jeter because of who preceded him, Don Mattingly. Donnie Baseball was another “show it on the field” captain who was the glue before Jeter. Before him was the mid-80′s back through the Bronx Zoo era filled with star rentals. I don’t have the slightest idea who the special Yankees players really were in mid-60′s and mid-70′s. From the time that Babe Ruth donned the pinstripes until the Yankees made their fifth straight World Series appearance in 1964, there were many Yankees who fans had a special appreciation for because of what they represented on the baseball diamond.
Maybe it is that last very long stretch of time when the Yankees were the ultimate powerhouse which we’ve read so much about that we link to Jeter because of his “Yankee way” mentality. He’s the closest thing to an icon the Yankees have seen since Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle and others. Each of those men became champions many times over, as is Jeter. Each of them became parts of fans lives as they listened to games on the radio and then watched them on television. Jeter has done the same with hard play each time he set foot on the field and because of the fantastic contributions he has made during his time in New York.
As free agency came along allegiances of players to teams began to dwindle. Players went where the money was and teams were more interested in which players would produce on the field and at the gate and not with maintaining a core. Every so often a player would come up through the ranks and stick with his team. John Smoltz (though he didn’t finish a Brave he was there for 21 years), Chipper Jones and Todd Helton are few I can think of off the top of my head. I gather if any of those players got hurt during a playoff game to the extent that they couldn’t return until the following season it would be a big deal to their fans.
This is my point. There are few players that fans are 100% invested in because in the back of their minds they know the player will be elsewhere soon enough. If Raul Ibanez was the one hurt, I wouldn’t have felt quite the demise. It would have sucked because he’s one of a couple guys hitting, but the feeling of complete loss would not have been there. I would have felt sorry for Ibanez and contemplated how the Yankees would fare without him, but I wouldn’t lose sleep over it either. When Jeter was lifted up off the ground because he couldn’t do it himself, it was the first time I’d ever seen him look, well, vulnerable. It got to me.
He’d been hobbling along for a long time at the end of the season and we took it for granted because that is what Jeter does, he plays hurt and he plays well doing so. He was noticeably hurt but it was not affecting much of his play. He was the most consistent hitter over the time he was ailing and into the postseason when we thought that maybe it was healing. Apparently his left ankle was not getting better but rather it was wearing out. He was playing more hurt than he let on and it took one last bad turn before his ankle was fractured and left him lying in a heap on the Yankee Stadium infield.
It was hard to watch; him writhing in pain and to know he wasn’t going to get up. He wasn’t going to provide the magical moment later in the game. It wouldn’t come later in the ALCS or later in the World Series. The season took a turn for the worse that night. Forget about the lack of overall offense, once Jeter fell to the ground and didn’t get up, the end of the season flashed before my eyes. So long as Jeter was leading off a game or making a jump throw, things were fine with me and I thought the Yankees could find a way to prevail. When that came to a sudden end, I got a lump in my throat and the reality set in that we may have seen the end of the 2012 season, right then and there.
Only Yankee fans, maybe some Twins fans and probably Orioles fans who watched Ripken Jr. all those years understand. The others who have a turnstile in their locker rooms don’t have a clue what it is like to have a player like Jeter on their team. If they did, they wouldn’t have cracked jokes about his injury and they wouldn’t have mocked Yankees fans who genuinely cared about their captain after watching something they’d never seen before. Their leader being helped off the field, knowing full well he wouldn’t be back the next day.