Sunday, September 21, 2008

Jeter accepts the torch

Derek Jeter had already done enough to ensure he'd never been forgotten.

The Jeffrey Maier game. The backhanded flip to Posada. The walk-off vs. Kim. The head-first dive against Boston. Those four rings. In between, there have been enough jump throws from left and inside-out singles to right to build a lifetime worth of legend cred.

And yet, the Captain managed to outdo himself on a special night at the Stadium. The last night at the Stadium.

“Every member of this organization, past and present, has been calling this place home for 85 years, There’s a lot of tradition, a lot of history and a lot of memories. Now the great thing about memories is you’re able to pass it along from generation to generation.

“Although things are going to change next year. We’re going to move across the street. There are a few things that New York Yankees that never change. That’s pride, tradition and most of all we have the greatest fans in the world.

We want you to take the memories from this stadium, add them to the new memories that come at the new Yankee Stadium and continue to pass them along from generation to generation. So on behalf of the entire organization, we want to take this moment to salute you, the greatest fans in the world.”

That's pretty cool, huh?

Here's the thing about Jeter. He's 34 years old. It's quite possible that, as a player, his best days are now behind him. He's got two more years left on his contract, and it's extremely likely he'll sign another deal for two or three more that ensures he retires a Yankee. He'll get 3,000 hits, maybe even 3,500, have his number retired, probably get a monument and enter the Hall of Fame five years later.

But beyond all those hits and all those rings, I feel like Jeter has now become an equal with the Yankee greats that came before him. I now see Jeter the way I picture Mantle was viewed in his final seasons. Someone who has become bigger than his peers, but for all the right reasons. Jeter's not just the shortstop for the Yankees anymore. He represents a piece of history. He's become another link in a very exclusive chain. For me, watching him give that postgame speech in the middle of the diamond clinched that ideal.

Over the past 12 years, he has been the Yankees' most visible star despite a public profile that favored vanilla quotes and actions that served only to avoid controversy. But when he took that microphone and addressed those 57,000 fans and millions more watching on TV, it was as if he officially accepted his role as the newest Yankee icon.

I grew up worshipping Don Mattingly as my idol. He was baseball to me, and he's the only player that can rival Jeter's popularity since Mantle retired prior to the 1969 season. But despite his immense popularity, Mattingly will never be viewed the same way Jeter will be once he retires. You can make the argument that Mattingly was the better player before his back quit on him, but without any tales of October glory, he'll always be earthbound when talk turns to the legends of the franchise.

Jeter has the rings. He has the numbers. And now you can see that he's finally took on the responsibility for what he means to America's most storied sports franchise. It was the perfect way to close the big ballpark in the Bronx.

Jeter said during his speech that some things about the New York Yankees never change. He's absolutely right. Some things will always be what they are, the history of the franchise will always give it immense meaning to millions of people. With Whitey and Yogi in attendance on Sept. 21, 2008, a new legend accepted his place amongst the satellites.

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