For a while last night, it looked like the same old story: (Insert Non-Yankee baseball team name here) has a lead in the Bronx in a playoff game, and it’s late in the game. You think you have them, and then it all goes horribly, horribly wrong. The Tigers had them last night, leading 4-0 in the bottom of the ninth. Of course Ichiro homers, and three batters later, Raul Ibanez does the same, the latter now meeting the minimum (patron level?) status for induction into the fraternity of “Yankee Legends.” It looked like anothoer one of those nights where the Yankees are down and out, and something comes and saves them. Call it their destiny, or the “ghosts” of Yankee stadium, or whatever undefinable force that makes the Yankees seemingly always succeed (2001 and 2004 notwithstanding) in these situations.
Multiple teams’ fans know this feeling. The Yankees have tied you up, and they are going to finish you off in the most soul-crushing, “f__ this I’m burning my jersey and cancelling my season tickets because baseball is soooooo rigged” kind of fashion possible. Since the mid-nineties, at least in the American League, the playoff theme in baseball has centered around the Yankees, their superiority, which at times has been more perception than reality, and their opponents’ inability to overcome the unrelenting leviathan has been the modern Yankee dynasty.
It has been sixteen years since the Yankees reclaimed their perch as the pace car of baseball. In that time, they’ve gone through multiple eras of players. It began with grubby, workaday battlers like Jim Leyritz and Joe Girardi, who founded the modern incarnation of “America’s most hated team” and evolved into the preening, mercinary superstars that populated their roster for much of the 2000′s. There were two constants to the roster, one was Mariano Rivera, who would haul the carcass of a defeated opponant away after the Jeter and the res of the assassins had done their job. Rivera was the Yankee’s undertaker, and Jeter was the captain of the hit squad.
Before you stop reading because you think that this is another love letter about the greatness of Derek Jeter, I would ask you to bear with me. I will say Jeter is certainly not the greatest Yankee ever. He was probably never the most talented player on any of the Yankee teams he played on. Jeter’s gift, however, was his ever-present ability to be, well, present. Most of Jeter’s career accomplishments, even his 3,000 hits, seem more like inevitibilities of time rather than amazing skill.
Jeter is the face of the Yankees because he personifies, more than anything else, everything about the Yankees that was stated in the first two paragraphs. Yankee fans love Derek Jeter because his team almost always wins. Opposing fans hate him for the exact same reason. Jeter has been there for every one of those moments of Yankee glory over the past decade-and-a-half, but rarely as the central player. Rather, Jeter was the man on the top step of the dugout, looking suave and unconcerned as Scott Brosius or Tino Martinez (or Raul Ibanez or Russell Martin) breaks your spirit in the bottom of the 12th inning.
Perhaps no story personifies this more than Jeter’s admission that he was in the bathroom during Russell Martin’s go-ahead home run against the Orioles in game 1 of the ALDS. So certain was he that the Yankees would get the job done, he didn’t need to be engaged.
No player likes to invoke the existence of Yankee “ghosts” more than Jeter, but even he is missing the point. The “ghosts” aren’t the disembodied spirits of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, etc. come back to twist the fortunes of a game in New York’s favor, but rather Jeter himself. His mere presence on the field, with his steely glare and proud stance. Everything about the man exuded an air of “my team is better than yours, and eventually we will beat you.”
But even to Jeter, sports can be a cruel and unfeeling world. Which is why I will print the end of this era of Yankee mystique in as cold and unfeeling terms as possible:
This is what the end looks like:
|D Phelps relieved D Robertson.||4||4|
|M Cabrera walked.||4||4|
|P Fielder grounded out to first, M Cabrera to second.||4||4|
|D Young doubled to deep right, M Cabrera scored.||5||4|
|D Kelly ran for D Young.||5||4|
|J Peralta reached on infield single to shortstop, D Kelly to third.||5||4|
|J Nix at shortstop.|
In a way, this had been building. The Yankees couldn’t hit at all in the Division Series. Alex Rodriguez is no longer Alex Rodriguez, and he was never really Alex Rodriguez come playoff time anyway. Their rotation is propped up by a man who looks to be one cheeseburger away from a total cholesteral meltdown, and their roster contains so many 35+ players that it is starting to look like a rest home for untradeable contracts. But as long as they had Jeter, the Yankees had a shot.
The game transcript above tells us the rest. Without even mentioning his name, it tells us that Jeter is removed from the game for Jayson Nix, which is a bit like removing Daniel Day-Lewis from “Gangs of New York” and replacing him with Jim Varney. Nevermind that the Yankees had already been sunk by Delmon Young (of all people!) by that point. The game wasn’t over until Jeter went down and didn’t get up. Now, not only is the game over, but the series is likely done as well. The Yankees are fully de-stabilized at this point, and they likely won’t recover this post-season.
And after that, what is there? Jeter will heal, and he will likely play on, but he’ll be 39 next year, and time has been catching up with him for several years now. Alex Rodriguez seems finished as a Yankee, one way or another, and the rest of the lineup, bar Robinson Cano, just doesn’t seem frightening. And even Cano will be 30 in eight days. Don’t even get me started on the pitching staff. I want to keep this thing under 3,000 words.
Of course these are the Yankees, and they will reload. They will likely be back in the playoffs next season. The question is, what will they look like then?
There comes a sudden point near the end of every great athlete’s career when it seems like their relevance disappears. For Johnny Unitas it was the day he trotted out in a powder-blue San Diego Charger uniform. For Wayne Gretzky, it was being traded to St. Louis.
For Jeter, it just might be the night his ankle snapped, and as he left the field, he took all of the Yankee hopes for glory with him.
They were replaced by Jayson Nix.