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February 13, 2014

Point/Counterpoint

Derek Jeter's Retirement Plan: Classiest, or Most Classless?

by Ben Lindbergh and Zachary Levine


On Wednesday, Derek Jeter announced that 2014 will be his final season in professional baseball, leaving us with only eight months to contemplate his career and wonder what we'll do without him. For now, though, we can only ask: Was that just the best retirement announcement we've ever seen, or what? BP's Ben Lindbergh and Zachary Levine weigh in.

Point: Jeter's Retirement Tour the Perfect Coda to an Incomparable Career
by Zachary Levine

The date was September 28th, back in 1787, when the new United States voted to approve the constitution, powering up the lantern that would illuminate all other nations. And it will be another September 28th, this one in 2014, when that light will dim just a little bit.

Derek Jeter, the American hero who will have played his entire career for America’s ballclub, will call it a career after this season, bringing to an end one of the great runs of any American athlete in any sport.

Where do we start with a player like Jeter?

Is it with the 3,316 hits, the 10th most going on probably the sixth most in baseball history?

Is it with the historically great defense that won him the five Gold Gloves at the most demanding position on the field?

Is it with the 200 playoff hits? The five rings? The 19 home runs in October baseball. And one that happened to fall in November.

No.

No.

No. No. No. No.

Those are just numbers—numbers that paint a portion of the portrait of Derek Sanderson Jeter—but only numbers.

The real story of No. 2 can’t be told through numbers.

It’s told through the stories of everyone he touched.

It’s told through the words of those who accompanied him on the journey, like Josh Reddick, who tweeted: “Derek Jeter was my first wow moment on field my first year. Came up to me and patted me on the back & said ‘welcome and congrats’ #rolemodel”

It’s told through the words of those who came before, like Bob Sheppard, who has passed on but whose voice still brings Jeter to the plate at Yankee Stadium.

And it will be told through the words that came after, those who’ll say they played shortstop because Derek Jeter did. That they wore No. 2 because of Derek Jeter. That they made that little hop on the play in the hole because they watched Derek Jeter, the greatest fielder of his generation, perfect the play.

When Jeter broke into the game, it was at an all-time low. The strike had forced the cancellation of the previous World Series. The nation had lost interest, and the game was thirsting for a hero to bring it back.

It found that hero in the unlikeliest of places—a kid from Kalamazoo, Michigan, with an 800,000 dollar signing bonus and a billion dollar smile.

Through the next 19 years, Derek Sanderson Jeter would give baseball everything he had.

He gave it his heart. He gave it his soul.

And perhaps most importantly, he brought class to an era defined by a distinct lack thereof.

In the year when Barry Bonds began his four-year, steroid-fueled rampage through the record books, Jeter made an impression in an altogether different way.

In October, he helped the Yankees defeat the Oakland A’s with one of the best plays in baseball history, known simply as “the flip.” Who needs more description than that?

And just seconds after the calendar turned to November, with a nation distraught in the wake of the September 11 attacks, it was Jeter who brought baseball fans back to delirium with his midnight miracle.

And most importantly he did it clean.

The only player whom I would swear on my life does not fall under the taint of the performance-enhancing drug scourge, Jeter did it the right way for 19 long years.

While it might have been tempting for the singles and doubles hitter to cheat his way into a tool that he didn’t have, Jeter never strayed from the right way to play.

It was the only thing he knew how to do.

For 19 seasons, that’s what he gave to baseball.

And now, for one glorious season and well-deserved victory lap, it’s what baseball is going to give back to him.

Always graced with a sense of timing, whether it was for cutting off bad throws or for homering to bring a hit total to 3,000 or now for announcing his exit with plenty of time for us to celebrate him, Jeter again picked the perfect moment.

Instead of the story of Alex Rodriguez, who felt he was bigger than the game, the story of the 2014 Yankees will be the story of a man who was the game.

From city to city, Jeter will be feted like his Core Four-mate Mariano Rivera, except to an even higher degree.

He’ll be out there for nine innings. He’ll be giving the game everything he has, just like he always has.

For us.

For America.

Counterpoint: Jeter’s Attention Grab a Disgrace to the Pinstripes
by Ben Lindbergh

You all know I’ve had my share of injuries and setbacks during my career. In recent years these have been too frequent to laugh off. When baseball is no longer fun, it’s no longer a game. And so, I’ve played my last game of ball.

Those were the words Joe DiMaggio chose when he said goodbye to baseball. Understated. Elegant. Effective. The same way he was on the field.

I couldn’t help but hear those words on Wednesday, when Derek Jeter confirmed his intention to retire at the end of the year.

As I suffered through a bunch of injuries, I realized that some of the things that always came easily to me and were always fun had started to become a struggle. The one thing I always said to myself was that when baseball started to feel more like a job, it would be time to move forward.

Sound familiar? It’s almost as if the Captain cribbed his farewell from a previous pinstriped icon, just as he mirrored DiMaggio’s graceful movements, his high average, and his affection for starlets.

That’s just as it should be. Jeter is the heir to the legacy of DiMaggio and Mantle, the latest link in an unbroken chain that connects the team of today to the plaques in Monument Park. And for the first 19 years of his storied career, he was worthy of the weight of history that was placed upon him.

Yesterday, he let that legacy down.

Sure, some of what DiMaggio and Jeter said sounded the same. But notice what they did differently.

DiMaggio needed only 84 words to cap off his Hall of Fame career. It took him 35 seconds to say them.

Jeter’s statement went on for 14 paragraphs. He recalled career highlights. He reminisced about bus rides. He thanked his friends and family. If he’d given this speech at the Golden Globes, they would have played the music and cut to commercial long before he finally got around to mentioning that it might be nice to win another World Series—after 729 words.

This was an overshare that would have made the famously private Yankee Clipper cringe. How appropriate, then, that Jeter delivered it not in front of a microphone, as DiMaggio did, but on Facebook, the ultimate look-at-me medium.

But it’s not the message or the medium that disappoints me the most. It’s the timing.

Jeter chose to tell us that he’s calling it quits before his last spring training started. DiMaggio made his announcement on December 11, 1951—two months after his final game. That was nothing. Mantle made his in March.

That’s right, kids. True Yankees used to walk away over the winter rather than make themselves a season-long story.

This way, of course, the Yankees get what they want: a retirement tour. That’s one way to sell tickets when you barely have a second baseman. And Jeter gets to spend his final season taking bows and getting gifts wherever he goes.

But since when is that what he wants? Jeter was always quick to put his own performance in the context of the team's. Talk to him after a loss in which he went 4-for-4, and he’d tell you that the day was a failure. Talk to him after an oh-fer that the Yankees won, and he’d call it a success. That didn’t make for the most interesting interviews, but Jeter didn’t care about quotes. He needed to be the best in October, not the best source of sound bites. So he did his talking on the field, one fist pump at a time.

And now, so close to closing out an immaculate career, he’s made his first off-the-field E-6.

Jeter? More like ME-ter. And that goes for ME-riano, too.

Jeter will say that he made his announcement now because he didn’t want his status to be a distraction. But DiMaggio’s uncertain status didn’t stop the 1951 team from winning a World Championship. And what could be a bigger distraction than the creepy sand sculptures he’s sure to receive? Far better to take a cue from Todd Helton or Ryan Theriot and walk away without fanfare.

Instead, he’ll soak in the standing ovations and leave the team to face the future without a proper successor in place. Ruth gave way to Gehrig, Gehrig to DiMaggio, DiMaggio to Mantle, Mantle to Murcer, Murcer to Munson. Who’s going to take the torch from Jeter? Eduardo Nunez?

But hey, what happens in 2015 won’t be his problem. By then, Joltin’ Jeter will be gone. “See ya,” as Michael Kay would say.

You’d think that a Captain would want to make sure that his ship could keep sailing. But Jeter just had to hang them up now, because baseball had begun to feel “like a job”—you know, that thing the rest of us do every day. If only we could all announce our retirements the second we stopped having fun.

Here’s the thing: We know when it’s time for the great ones to go, and not because they say so on Facebook. They tell us with their actions, not with their words.

Ken Griffey, Jr. went from electrifying fans to falling asleep in the clubhouse. Willie Mays went from winning Gold Gloves to stumbling in center. And Derek Jeter? He went from putting his team first to hogging the headlines.

There once was a time when Jeter could command our attention without even trying. Now he’s a nostalgia act desperately clinging to the spotlight. And that’s what makes this exit so sad.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here
Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

Related Content:  Derek Jeter

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