On 2,717 occasions, Derek Jeter has suited-up and gone into regular season battle. Among the resultant sea of scything opposite field hits, dramatic game-changing interventions and career-altering victories, only once has he donned the fabled pinstripes with his beloved New York Yankees mathematically eliminated from postseason contention.
Jeter has gone to bat 12,480 times, played in excess of 25,000 innings, and toiled for 20 years at the top of his profession, and only once was the focus of his attention meaningless. The game in question, a 19-8 drubbing of the Red Sox at Fenway Park in late September 2008, remains a historical anomaly. Every other time the Captain laced-up his cleats, there was something on the line, a quite remarkable achievement.
Now, in the waning hours of a sterling career, Jeter is straining to maintain such an unprecedented record; to extend his incomparable reign into one final fall; to reach the playoffs for a seventeenth time in twenty tries. The Yankees are trying just as hard, yearning to deliver for their prodigal son a fitting conclusion to a magnificent opus.
“We really talked about adding more energy,” said third baseman Chase Headley, to the New York Post, of a recent team meeting geared towards kick-starting a spluttering Yankee season and undoubtedly imbued with greater urgency by Jeter’s impending retirement. “You’ve got to really pull for guys, you have to make it fun.”
Similarly, Brian McCann, who cracked a pinch-hit, three-run, walk-off home run Sunday to beat Chris Sale and the White Sox, believes the Yankees are “just grinding a little more” these days. The catcher explained how New York “came together as a team and discussed some things and, since then, we’ve been having better at-bats. Right now we’re just doing it.”
Jeter has been “doing it” for two decades, delivering when the chips are down and legends are created. Even after all those games, all those wins, and all those championships, the venerable Yankee shortstop maintains a razor-sharp appetite for success. “I want to win,” the Captain conferred to MLB.com. “That’s it. It doesn’t get any more complicated than that.”
“When you’re playing, you want to win. That’s the mindset I’ll have until my last game. I enjoy competing and when you compete, you want to win. That’s the last thing I want to do.”
As baseball fans, we should all want to see it happen; the master granted his final wish. No matter how much you love or loathe the Yankees and Derek Jeter, his playing in October on one final occasion would be an irrefutable joy; a most evocative tale, ripe with stupendous symmetry and poetic poignancy. It would be one of those fine Yankee moments, one of those fine baseball moments, packed with powerful symbolism and the sweet pathos of history. The Captain leading his team to the playoffs has been a natural feature of baseball in the modern realm, and I can think of no more apt manner in which to bid this postseason knight adieu.
Of course, even Jeter is unable to magic a playoff berth from thin air. To reach the baseball postseason requires a level of effort, determination and resilience unique across sport, a fact which only adds to the brilliance of Number 2’s record. This year, the Yankees, ravaged by an injury plague which struck four-fifths of the starting rotation and remains a daily battle, have struggled for momentum and, faced with the surging Baltimore Orioles, turned attention to fraying wildcard hopes in recent weeks. However, at this point, New York, in spite of chronic offensive woes, has refused to die, refused to submit, refused to quit on the dream ending for its dream player.
At executive level, Brian Cashman, has been spiritually, if not explicitly, motivated by Jeter’s presence, making moves and shaping the Yankees’ roster for one last tilt at glory. In the offseason, he spent nearly $500m in rejuvenating the franchise, a decision made, in part, to his own contract situation (Cashman’s deal ends this winter), and a desire to put another championship-calibre team on the field around Jeter.
When Beltran and McCann got off to poor starts, Cashman could have been forgiven for second-guessing those moves. When Tanaka went down and Sabathia did the same, he could have been forgiven for cutting costs and diminishing damage. When, at the trade deadline, the Yankees languished in third place with a star-encrusted disabled list, the GM could have been forgiven for blowing it all up. Obviously, that kind of move isn’t in the Yankees’ DNA, nor that of Brian Cashman, but, had not Derek Jeter been in situ, the likelihood of the organization going out and making impact trades would’ve been greatly diminished.
As it transpired, Cashman did everything short of moving heaven and earth to improve the Yankees, striking a series of deals to acquire Headley, Martin Prado, Brandon McCarthy, Chris Capuano and Stephen Drew. The flurry of activity, and the frenzied manner in which it was undertaken, resembled one last concerted effort to fashion a team capable of making people wonder, if not wholeheartedly dream. It was a salvage operation, seemingly geared towards bringing a successful end to a memorable, if increasingly strained, era.
Thus far, the patchwork effect has kept New York in the hunt, providing an injection of energy and enthusiasm, if nothing else. Prado, a dynamic, versatile professional, has played all over the diamond and delivered some big hits; McCarthy, an effective journeyman, has experienced a Bronx renaissance, with a 1.90 ERA and 1.135 WHIP since arriving from Arizona; and Headley, similarly rejuvenated after moving from San Diego, has embraced the heated pennant race, providing solid leadership, strong defense and a keen batting eye.
The result? Well, the Yankees, and Jeter, still have a legitimate chance of making the postseason. How big is that chance? It’s difficult to tell. According to FanGraphs, a preeminent authority on such issues, New York has a playoff probability percentage of 13.7. By comparison, Baltimore, presently six games ahead in the East, has a 91.5 percent chance of making the postseason, with wildcard rivals Detroit (69.2 percent) and Seattle (54.4 percent) not far behind.
Therefore, despite an exorbitant $220 million payroll, the Bombers find themselves cast as the archetypal underdog, scrapping for wins and hoping to catch a break. They still have enough games on the schedule, but whether the offense can really explode and the pitching continue to hold up remains to be seen. I would like to think that, on both accounts, the answer is ‘yes,’ but, in baseball, you just never can be entirely sure.
We know for certain that Derek Jeter has only days left as a professional ballplayer. The accompanying farewell tour, which has seen showered with platitudes and gifts perhaps the most supreme sportsman of our time, will continue unabated. Yet, without question, the best memento one could accord this splendid lifetime Yankee would be one last October hurrah.
“We just want to win,” the Captain once famously said. “A lot of times people may become content with one championship or a little bit of success, but we don’t really reflect on what we’ve done in the past. We focus on the present.”
For these 2014 New York Yankees, the present has often been a struggle. But, with barely five weeks remaining, they at least have an opportunity to write a neat footnote in franchise history.
Let Derek Jeter ride off into the sunset from the environment with which we most associate him: between second and third in the Bronx during a pinstriped playoff game.
You know it makes sense.