Well, actually, that's not quite true. There are a series of moments that keep reminding of you of that fact. They are different for everyone. Everybody uses a different yardstick. Unsurprisingly, I tie a lot of the passage of time to sport, and last night was one of those moments.
I watched baseball before Derek Jeter broke into the big leagues in 1995. My earliest clear memory is of the Blue Jays-Phillies World Series, which was in 1993. That memory would peg me at seven years old. Which means I would have been nine when Derek Jeter made his debut with the Yankees.
Like it or not, the Yankees tend to define baseball. They demand the most attention in the nation's biggest media market,* they typically have the biggest names,** and they are just about always contenders.*** So, of course, their stars become the nation's stars, whether you can stand the Yankees or not. And that was certainly true of Derek Jeter.
*And quite possibly the biggest media market in the world, though I haven't researched that at all.
**Even if those names tend to be a bit long in the tooth.
***This is the first year in the Wild Card era that neither the Yankees or the Red Sox will be in the playoffs.
With his retirement, the debate about this defense has raged back and forth all over again, as it has his entire career. My take? He was a solid shortstop. Not the greatest, but much better than his detractors would suggest. Yes, he played with some flair, as his signature jump throw would suggest. And, yes, I would readily agree that most of that flair came about from having somewhat limited range as a shortstop. But the fact remains that he made those plays. Whether it looked as smooth (or routine, maybe) as an Omar Vizquel or somebody similar in their prime, the box score didn't change. 6-3, batter out.
I went through my Jeter-hating stage. Any confirmed Yankee hater would, especially in the late '90's when the Yankees were seemingly winning every year. But as the years have gone by, I have softened my stance on Jeter. You're not going to find me rooting for the Yankees anytime soon, but I have found nothing but respect for number two.*
*Yeah, he probably could have put a stop to all the merchandising of his retirement tour this year, and I wish he would have. But I can't blame him for it, either. It's the world we live in.
He has put in two decades of being the highest visibility player in the sport in a pretty savage media town. And what is the worst you ever heard about Jeter? That he sent his women gift baskets? Let me tell you, if that's the worst you can say about a guy, he's done pretty well. He has squeezed every last bit of opportunity and effort out of the talent he was graced with. He has approached the game with nothing but respect. He always plays hard. If he had just worn stirrups, he would be the perfect image of a baseball player.
And last night? Of course last night would end how it did. He has clearly been blessed as a ball player. Part of that comes from always playing in high profile spots, but I'll be damned if he didn't come through at the biggest times. He's not infallible, of course, but think of the stories you will tell about Jeter, especially if you have gotten to watch him from start to finish. The Flip. Mr. November. Busting his face in the stands against the Red Sox, Homering for his 3,000th hit. A bottom of the ninth walk-off hit in his final game in Yankee Stadium. You can dispute if "clutch" is really a thing or not all you want. All I know is seemingly every time a situation came up that you wouldn't dare put into a movie for being to fanciful, Jeter made it reality.
And, you know, even the way he got last night's walk-off was better than a scriptwriter would have come up with. A screenplay would want him to hit the ball over the fence to close the book. But a little inside-out slice into right field was far more in character for Jeter, as Grantland (somewhat psychically) pointed the other day. He has been a nearly-Gwynn-like machine about flipping the ball into the 3.5 hole.*
*To use a Gwynn-like term. As good as Jeter has been, though, I don't believe he is quite Tony Gwynn's level.
Baseball will miss Jeter. I will miss Jeter. As I've written here before, he is the first superstar baseball player I have gotten to watch from start to finish. And, you know, he did it the right way. Or, at least, the old fashioned way. And I have nothing but respect for him, and I have no choice but to respect his decision to call it a career at shortstop after last night. We'll get a few bonus at bats in Boston, sure. But as far as the storybook is concerned? I think we just reached The End.
Thank you, Jeter. I may not have always been your biggest fan, but you have made me into a bit of a convert.