Friday, September 26, 2014

Jeter, Overmatched, But Not Outclassed

By Jeff Kallman

In microcosm, Derek Jeter's final at-bat Tuesday night slammed home both the point of what he's no longer able to do and that the Yankees couldn't afford even a single loss in their final five games if they wanted to get to the postseason even through the back door. For in a moment that once might have meant a final bell miracle, Jeter was hopelessly, almost embarrassingly overmatched.

There he stood, the Yankees down 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth, with two out and Brett Gardner on first. There stood Zack Britton, the Orioles' closer, against whom Jeter took a 5-for-15 lifetime jacket to the plate. On the line was the Yankees' survival to play one more day in postseason contention and Jeter's 10-for-24 surge on the final Yankee homestand of the season.

Jeter's farewell season has been somewhat controversial for the point that questions arose all year long as to whether the 40-year-old Yankee captain belonged in the lineup as a regular anymore. His fielding skills, compromised often enough by his below-average range as it was, made him look even older often enough; his OPS is the lowest of any season in which he's played 140+ games.

Last year, Mariano Rivera's farewell tour didn't embarrass either The Mariano himself or his team because he still pitched like a far better than serviceable closer. (For merely mortal closers Rivera's 2013 would be a career year.) This year's Jeter farewell tour, not that anyone would have denied him the accolades, may yet prove to be an embarrassment for a franchise and a franchise face about whom the truest of all cliches is that neither they nor he like to lose.

For the better part of 18 seasons Jeter was liable to do something surrealistic above and beyond his customary skill set. He wasn't really a power hitter, properly defined, but he seemed to have a knack for bringing power to bear in the moments when something big was needed or at least not unwelcome. He's far from the rangiest shortstop who ever played the game, but he seemed to have a knack for the acrobatically dramatic play that clung to the memory and even obscured his shortcomings at the position.

For the rest of his life, Jeter will be judged by a few better-than-timely hits and a few shazam! fielding plays. This is the man who once squared up Byung-Hyun Kim in a 2001 World Series game with the clock striking midnight and 1 November, found a pitch he could handle the other way, and snuck it over the right field fence to win. This is the man who shot down across the diamond from, seemingly, Tremont Avenue, to bag Jeremy Giambi at the plate with a backhanded toss in Game Three of the 2001 American League division series. This is also the man who didn't just collect his 3,000th lifetime hit three years ago but squared up David Price's full-count curve ball and sent it into the left field bleachers en route a 5-for-5 day.

But for just about all of this season, Jeter's been judged by what he can't do anymore and whether or not manager Joe Girardi or someone aboard his brain trust should have acknowledged what time knows too well. The Yankees paid him generously for this final season, obviously in tribute to what he's meant to the franchise, but are they paying for their eagerness to honor the best all-around shortstop in their history with something more than mere money?

This is a Yankee team who barely hung in the races after injuries decimated them early enough and often enough. They've had very few truly baseball-related feel-good stories this year other than Dellin Betances, the setup man with the gaudy 1.42 ERA and 1.67 fielding-independent pitching average and almost fourteen strikeouts per nine innings, the kind of filthy pitching once the trademark of the man to whose closing job Betances may yet succeed once removed.

They lost already aging CC Sabathia and up-and-down Ivan Nova to the season-ending disabled list. They lost import sensation Masahiro Tanaka for over half the season to the DL. They lost Mark Teixiera and Carlos Beltran often enough to injuries and inconsistency and Martin Prado, a mid-season pickup, to a season-ending appendectomy. They watched Brian McCann (a free agency signing) struggle to horse himself and Jacoby Ellsbury (another free agency signing) struggle with streakiness before he, too, hit the ranks of the walking wounded with a hamstring issue.

And they've watched their longtime captain tell himself every day that playing the game is still the most important thing, while he faces the reality he doesn't pretend doesn't exist.

Now, on Tuesday night, Jeter stood in against Britton. He watched a swift sinkerball land in the zone on the floor for a called strike. He swung on a just-as-swift sinkerball and missed. Then, he swung on a sinker almost as swift and missed. A seventh-inning single kept a seven-game hitting streak intact, but in a moment when the Yankees most needed Jeter to summon up one more spell of his old magic, he didn't have it to summon up. Three pitches. Three strikes. Game over.

For Britton and the American League East champion Orioles, it was another win in hope of somehow, some way, obtaining the postseason home field advantage the AL West champion Angels look to have secured. For Jeter and his Yankees, it was the season's coffin lid coming that much closer to closed.

"He was better than me," Jeter deadpanned to reporters after the game, not having to say what everyone knew, that even five years ago, never mind ten or twenty, that kind of game outcome would have been unthinkable.

He has always been that much of a stand-up man. If you conquered him, he gave you your due. If he conquered you, he showed you respect. If you looked closely enough through this year's retirement hoopla, you saw a man preparing for the end down to the smallest detail, whether selling his longtime Manhattan apartment or admitting he'd like to raise a family after having ducked it during his career because he feared he couldn't while he played baseball.

Jeter's had a lot of wishes come true in his baseball. The wish he must have had above all in that regard probably won't come true. He still hates to lose. He still hates to have October off, even his final October.

Try though they might, the Yankees haven't been able to send all their signature greats off as winners of one or another kind. They could for stricken Lou Gehrig, hobbled Joe DiMaggio, and aging Yogi Berra and Jorge Posada (who got to one more postseason, albeit one with an early exit). They couldn't for worn-down Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle; they couldn't for the rest of the Core Four — Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera — either.

"I play a game where you're supposed to control your emotions," Jeter recently told an interviewer who runs a memorabilia shop at which Jeter appeared before a small crowd. "It's a game of failure and success. And you have to be able to control it. That's why at times this year it's been difficult, because you go places and they're showing video montages and you feel like, like, you're dying or something."

He doesn't want to step away from the game or the Yankees quite that way. But even though he has too much class to say it outright, Jeter must have felt as though a key piece of him died in the batter's box Tuesday night. The piece that once performed miracles of a sort. The piece that no longer can. The piece that wasn't there when he was hammered for a three-pitch game-ending strikeout, that couldn't summon up one more gap drive or opposite field down-the-liner to send a key game to extra innings.

Still, Jeter's both too intelligent and too sensitive to let it destroy his equilibrium. When you see him in Cooperstown five years hence, you'll see that equilibrium in full force, and you're not likely to hear this man who hates to lose betray any thought that going out like less than a champion troubles him as deeply as the thoughts of his post baseball life seem now to keep him at a kind of peace.

Postscript: This almost figures. But two days after that sad game-ending, three-pitch strikeout, Derek Jeter played his final home game in a Yankee uniform. (There had been fears of anticipated rain washing the game out, fears which proved unfounded.) Fate must be terminally kind to Jeter: in the bottom of the ninth, with a man on second, Jeter jumped on a first-pitch fastball and, with his almost-patented inside-out swing, slashed it on the ground and into right field for the game-ending RBI.

It didn't mean a trip to the postseason for the otherwise vanquished Yankees and the shortstop who prizes winning above anything else, but Yankee fans---and millions watching his farewell tour in awe no matter whom they root for otherwise---probably couldn't have cared less this time. They'd gotten what they wanted, Derek Jeter winning his final home game with a hit.

"Everyone dreams of hitting a home run in the World Series or getting a game-winning hit. But I was happy with a broken bat and a run scored in the the seventh inning; I was happy with that being the end," Jeter said after the game, straining to control the emotions he admitted were just at the surface all day long. "But I'll take this one."

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