Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Pride of the Yankees: Derek Jeter's Final Bow

Derek Jeter in 2008, after his 1,270th hit at Yankee Stadium, breaking Lou Gehrig's record (Photo: Barton Silverman)

No start to a sporting season garners the kind of response from observers that baseball elicits. The 2014 contest is halfway over; back in April, commentators everywhere greeted the return of pitch and catch with the kind of paeans reserved for myth. The link between baseball, spring, and eternal youth is made much of, and that mysticism never fails to register in my heart at some level. It's impossible to grow up in Cooperstown, as I did, and not feel a spiritual connection to the game unique among Americans. But this season's especially poignant for me as Derek Jeter – captain of the Yankees, hero to legions of New Yorkers – bids baseball farewell. In the shadow of his retirement, this season's symbolized not just the rebirth of hope, but the ending of an era – for a city, for a team, for me.

Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart synthesized the metaphysical and religious dimensions of baseball a few years ago in First Things, brilliantly crystallizing its Platonic overtones:
In form, it is not a conflict between two teams over contested ground; in fact, the two sides never directly confront one another on the field, and there is no territory to be captured. Rather, in shape it is that most perfect of metaphysical figures: the closed circle. It repeats the great story told by every idealist metaphysics, European and Indian alike: the purifying odyssey of exitus and reditus, diastole and systole, departure from and ultimate return to an abiding principle.
In terms of Christian dimensions, he notes that baseball contains two biblical motifs: Firstly, the importance of faith, hope, and love. While handing you soul-crushing defeats, baseball asks you to stay true to your team, to love your fallible players, to believe in next year. Secondly, it's pastoral playing ground and summer sweetness evoke our longing for paradise – and the Yankees' success, he quips, reminds us of the presence of evil. Ah, yes. Yankees fans have had to accept the hatred of so many others over the decades. Even Ken Burns, in his wonderful documentary on the game, couldn't but let his Red Sox antipathy for the Bronx Bombers come out. In The Tenth Inning (his follow up chapter added to the original 1994 series, Baseball), he does a fine job capturing the Yankees dynasty of the late 1990s, led by a lovely interview with Joe Torre, their great manager. But he can't help himself, and gives the final word to a sportswriter who begrudgingly acknowledges that those particular Yankees were an o.k. bunch – an awful thing to have to admit, he laughs.

Yankees celebrate 1996 World Series win
But for those Yankees fans who, like I, grew up in the '90s, those teams were our heroes. We loved them with a protective pride equal to that of any city, any club. And our new heroes – men gathered by general managers Gene Michael and Bob Watson – were homegrown products and scrappy veterans that earned respect. The pugnacious Paul O'Neill in right field, the most hot-tempered Irishman in the game since John McGraw. Soft-spoken Bernie Williams in center, with his gazelle-like coverage of the field and jazz guitar proficiency. Tino Martinez at first base, disciplined, quiet, cheerful, clutch. Scott Brosius at third, picked off the scrap heap only to achieve World Series glory. Professorial David Cone on the mound, inventing endless pitches and arm angles. And the Zen master, Mariano Rivera, greatest closer in history. Most of these guys were not stars. And even those that were, like Jeter, joined them in their workmen-like approach to their job. When he took the helm in 1996, Torre brought a National League style of play to the AL, and his players ground out hits and runs in a team-oriented approach. Not only were these guys winners, but they were classy – they were the everyman, who earned their victories and our respect.

No one commanded our undying respect more than Torre, with his gravitas and dugout glare that enshrouded him in wisdom. After years of clubhouse drama between managers and owner George Steinbrenner, Torre brought an equipoise and sagacity to the club, soothing egos and massaging the New York press. He'd spent his whole career as a player and coach aching for a World Series ring and would find it that season with the help of a rookie named Derek Jeter. From the moment he took the field, Jeter stood on another level. You knew, even then, that he was something special. He had a youngster's spark, a flashy smile, a boundless optimism to him.Whereas most ballplayers are pull-hitters, his patented inside-out swing drives pitches to the opposite field. But he also had uncanny baseball instincts, preternatural class and maturity, and a selfless passion for collective success above personal achievement.

Torre and Jeter were like Stengal and Mantle, the kind of immediate match of perspective and understanding on the game that turns an older coach and younger player into a kind of father and son. Jeter revered the man, calling him, "Mr. Torre," in a throwback to the golden age of baseball. He was lucky to have Torre's sage, steady hand to guide him through the pressure of the big leagues, the megalomania of Steinbrenner, and the celebrity limelight of New York. And Torre was lucky to have Jeter on the field – the kind of once-in-a-lifetime player who could hold a team together just by his presence and deliver in the clutch moment. The two men intuitively understood each other's minds, instinctively reading the game, a particular given situation, the same way. Torre relied on Jeter to translate his wishes onto the field. And he rarely failed to deliver.

Joe Torre and Derek Jeter
It meant everything that the dynasty played out in the old Yankee Stadium, which connected those clubs to the ghosts of Yankees past. The place would rock in those days. And as a teenage boy, I reveled in both the Stadium's thunder and the franchise's lore – Ruth and Gehrig, DiMaggio and Berra, Mantle and Maris, Munson and Jackson. Those holy ghosts seemed everywhere in those years, blessing their descendants' pursuits in uncanny ways. There was the magic of '96, when Torre finally got his ring the night after his brother got a heart-transplant. There was 1998, when the Yanks won an A.L. unprecedented 114 games and swept the World Series, the most enjoyable baseball season I've ever had. '99, with another title crown and David Cone's perfect game. And 2000, when they won the ultimate New York bragging rights: defeating the Mets in the first Subway Series since 1956. I was in the stands for Game 1, and when the boys in pinstripes won a thrilling comeback victory in extra innings – sparked by O'Neill's gutsy, hard-fought walk in the 9th – I felt on top of the world. Every fan has to admit that Yankees baseball in these years contained some of the greatest drama and pathos of any in the game's storied history.

Even the heart-breaking 2001 World Series – its Game 7 “what-might-have-been” loss in the bottom of the ninth – was awash in Yankees magic. With the ruin of the World Trade Center smoking across the East River, the team carried the collective grief and hopes of the city and nation on their shoulders. It was the one time everyone thought it was o.k. to root for the Yankees. Games 4 and 5 were improbably identical in drama: game-tying home runs each night in the bottom of the 9th by Martinez and Brosius, both with two outs. Tense, nail-biting pitchers' duels early on. Thrilling extra-innings victories by the Bombers. Each time, the Stadium erupted in a bedlam I've never heard before or since in any sporting contest. Exploding from their collective anguish, like the thudding drums on Springsteen's titular track of "The Rising," the crowd and their team merged into a primal cacophony that left the broadcasters dumbstruck and game play halted in a kind of eternal now. Though the scoreboard said they lost Game 7, in our hearts it felt like they'd won.

But they didn't win, and it was the beginning of the end. They were over-matched by Arizona that year, and again by the Marlins in the 2003 Series. You had the sense they were old men now. The saving grace was that the Red Sox still suffered under the Curse of the Bambino, finding endless ways to blow a season or a series when it mattered. Aaron Boone's ecstatic extra-inning home run in 2003 to win the pennant for the New York over Boston was the latest crumbling defeat the Yankees handed their archrival. But then there was 2004 – the stake driven through the heart of New York. And 2007. And last year. The Bombers retook the title in '09, with the “Core Four” of Andy Pettite, Jorge Posada, Rivera, and Jeter hoisting the trophy. But it rang hallow somehow – it was in the new Stadium, with its airport corporate lounge feel. Most of our favorite players were long gone, as was Torre. It was the era of ARod, the anti-Jeter.

The shortstop still stood at the center, though, as he always had. He seemed to walk above the ground in his early years. Every Yankees comeback or dramatic moment involved him in some way. There was his improbable “flip” play in 2001, his walk-off home run in the World Series against Arizona to earn him the moniker, “Mr. November.” His head-first dive into the stands to snag a pop fly against Boston on July 1, 2004 – the greatest regular season game I've ever seen. Most of all, there was his day-in, day-out consistency. The dramatic successes made him great, but the undramatic successes made him excellent. And he could bring them together as no one else: slumping onto a bar stool a few years ago in Florida, my head pounding after the worst flying experience of my life, I looked up at the television in time to see him smack his 3,000th hit over the outfield wall in Yankee Stadium against Tampa. The headache vanished.

Lou Gehrig
Ballplayers always stand in the shadow of their predecessors, and Jeter evokes comparison to Lou Gehrig most of all. There's the shared professionalism and eschewing of scandal. The hard work ethic and daily grind. The respect from teammates and opposing teams alike. He seemed destined to join the ranks of Gehrig and company from the beginning. There was the fact that he had a single digit for a number, 2. That he played for just one team, the Yankees, his entire career after coming up through their farm system. That he was named captain of the club, like the other greats. These traits would be impressive in any age. In the era of free agency, they're unheard of. He's King of New York, and you'd never know it the way he carries himself. Given the Pantheon of Yankees legends, his numbers are shocking: the franchise leader in base hits (3,420), games played (2,695), and stolen bases (356). Boasting a .351 batting average in the World Series, he currently stands seventh on the all-time hits list and will probably finish at sixth by season's end. Twice he was robbed of the Most Valuable Player Award, in 2006 and 2009. No matter – he's attained a higher status.

Now it's over. When you're growing up, certain fixtures lend you comfort and innocence. In my youth, I could count on these as givens: family reunions, summers on the lake, the smell of incense at church. And Yankees' victories. Becoming an adult is about experiencing disappointment, having your dreams constrained – on a baseball field and, more powerfully, off of it. Writer Roger Angell tells Burns onscreen that baseball, ultimately, is about loss. About losing. And just as I experienced loss with my country, church, self in the last fifteen years, so I did with the Yankees. Future victories won't compensate, because you can't undo the past. I can never go back to the time when I enjoyed the illusion that Yankees dynasty fostered: that happy days were here to stay. I won't muster the same devotion and thrill for a team or season like I did then. For I can't be a kid again, and those players and moments can't be replicated to match a young boy's heart. Adulthood means realizing, after all, that there are much more important, serious matters in life than baseball.

But the kid that merged his identity with Jeter and the Yankees still lives in me in a deep place. He's learned the bitterness of losing, too, in his latter years, and it's matured him. When the shortstop leaves the field for good (hopefully at the end of October, with a sixth ring on his finger) that kid in me will finally leave with him. His old skipper was inducted into the Hall of Fame on July 27th, right there in Cooperstown, as my family looked on. Ever the statesman, he closed his speech with a stirring coda. “Baseball is a game of life,” he imparted. “It's not perfect, but it feels like it is. That's the magic of it. We are responsible for giving it the respect it deserves. Our sport is part of the American soul, and it's ours to borrow – just for a while." It's been ten years since I was a die-hard fan, but seeing Torre brought the memories flooding back.Yankees baseball knit the men of my family together across three generations. I loved it. Six years from now, Jeter will join his former manager in the shrine, on the first ballot. I hope to walk the country mile from my house to the ceremony that day, and catch a glimpse of my one-time hero, standing in my hometown in the flesh to be immortalized in bronze. When I do, I'll wave a long goodbye: to a great player, and to a person I once was.

– Nick Coccoma is a film, theatre, and culture critic. He blogs regularly at The Similitude and contributes to Full-Stop Magazine. His articles and postings on movies, religion, and drama have been featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The DishThe Rumpus3 Quarks Daily, and Catholic How. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as an actor, teacher, and chaplain. 

No comments:

Post a Comment