Monday, April 16, 2012
Close the Curtain Slowly: Derek, Bernie, and the dream
Angry at Derek Jeter? Well, those sacrifice bunts in the first inning could incite even a Buddhist monk. But aside from that unfortunate habit, I find it nearly impossible to disdain Jeter, even as he was routinely overpowered by just about any pitcher throwing with a right hand during the first half of last season.
I do my best to accept the limitations of baseball players. Criticizing athletes from a couch is an American pastime, and even the most rational sports followers are occasionally swept within the winds of irrational emotion. My past experiences playing competitive baseball, against high school caliber competition, taught me two personal lessons. That baseball was incredibly difficult, and creatively cruel. The players earning big money professionally had to overcome career combusting elements through all levels of their journey, from mastering the delicate skill of consistency, to maintaining health while playing a physically demanding game.
Despite being slightly aware of baseball’s difficulty, I still fly off the handle with ease. When a runner is on third with less than two out, I become easily incensed at ‘unproductive outs.’ Of course, the gods of baseball (impassive orbs in outer space, see the syllabus) see all outs as more or less the same. Depending on game situation, fans have a tendency to believe players can magically guide ‘productive outs’ at will. So I’ll be especially hard on Robinson Cano, if he flails at a pitch out of the strike zone with the bases loaded, or Nick Swisher, if the swagger hound strikes out when a ground ball could have sufficed. Jeter is the exception. He consistently escapes my ire. Because I am not in a rush to judge his performance, I feel more of a distinct connection with him. Inside of me there’s still the teenage Jeter fan boy who was insulted during the 2001 playoffs when Fox compared him with Miguel Tejada. Also inside is the more mature man who doesn’t feel the need to fling household objects when that same player repeatedly fails in ‘clutch situations.’
Except for his ludicrous philosophies on bunting (Derek defends his position in an Amazon E-Book called ‘Hall of Famers can bunt, too.’ Currently on sale for seventy-four cents) Jeter’s mistakes barely register with me emotionally. It’s a strange detachment, considering my high expectations for the other Yankees.
I was similarly unmoved by Bernie Williams’ impression of a statue for the last couple of years of his career. (And Mariano Rivera? Forget it. He could be throwing low fifties gas at the age of eighty and I would still want him on the mound for the last three outs.)
Williams’ decline as a player began almost immediately after injuring his knee during the 2003 season. From that point forward, he became, almost immediately, a liability, except as a right-handed hitter of fastballs. Bernie could probably still crush one of those, especially from the recently retired Arthur Rhodes. Bernie’s struggles in 2003 were mitigated by the continued emergence of Alfonso Soriano, the slugging of Jason Giambi, and a characteristically strong effort from Jeter. Bernie also slaughtered the baseball during the 2003 World Series, especially at cavernous Pro Player Stadium, where an exciting bid to tie game five against Braden Looper died on the warning track. The lasting image of his season was not one of failure, which obscured the cold reality of his decline.
By 2004, Bernie had become a part-time centerfielder, and truthfully, should have probably been benched in favor of Kenny Lofton. Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield had arrived, and Williams slipped into the shadows, contributing offensively in 2004 before totally free-falling in ’05, when, at the outset, the Yankees inexplicably expected him to once again assume full-time defensive responsibilities. Bernie was a role player forced to step up due to injuries by 2006, his final season. Though his disintegration had been traumatic for hardcore fans, it was hardly front-page news, not compared to whether Jeter and A-Rod were still B.F.F. The graceful Bernie Williams had gone from a switch-hitting, World Series winning,.900 .OPS compiling, thank God we resigned him, guitar-playing monster to a shadow. Sea changes in baseball are often that violent. The pastoral pace of the game belies sudden shifts in fortune. It’s a gentle riptide. When Bernie Williams was pulled under, the type of hysteria capable of temporarily distorting our perceptions was mostly avoided, aside from the brief drama of whether he would accept a minor league invitation to camp in 2007. I was sure a similar situation involving Jeter would play out differently.
Before the predictably difficult negotiating sessions for a new contract, featuring twists and turns splashed on the backs of papers from SoHo (not Luis) to Jersey, there was Derek Jeter’s 2010 season, which was the worst of his career. His .OPS was .710, a career low by over sixty points. His batting average plunged to .270, and on base to .340. Recent improvements to his defensive metrics proved unsustainable. The season paled in comparison even to a disappointing 2008, which had been partially affected by a lingering hand injury. There was never a doubt that Jeter would resign with the Yankees, but debate raged among fans and analysts about the potential length of his new contract. He was eventually inked through 2014.
Jeter’s 2009 season had been triumphant, a flashback to prime form. His on-base percentage had never been higher, except in 1999 and 2000. The Yankees won the World Series. In 2010,Jeter crashed after a fast start. By August, he was getting jammed on pitches he used to easily pull with authority, and grounding out weakly on outside fastballs that had been previously been shot down the line in right for extra bases. The Yankees, as a club, ran into problems in the defining months of 2010. Phil Hughes flamed out after a promising beginning to his season. Andy Pettitte pitched sparingly after injuring his groin. A.J. Burnett certified his status as an enigma, and Javier Vazquez earned his status as a two-time exile. The Yankees appeared vulnerable as the playoffs began, but seemed to regain their footing while drubbing the Twins in round one, proving once and for all the fallacy of due theory. They were dominated by Texas in the ALCS, however, despite winning two games. The team had been fun to watch, but appeared worn out by the curtain’s close. They resembled Jeter.
The immediate future was mysterious. The Yankees’ had an obvious need for starting pitching depth, but Andy Pettitte retired, and Cliff Lee returned to the Phillies during the offseason. The Yankees would lean heavily on the offense in 2011, and, by natural extension, Jeter. The 2009 Yankees were a superb lineup, not even counting the shortstop with an .871 .OPS. Throw that number in the mix, and the output becomes terrifying. The 2011 Yankees didn’t necessarily need a Jeter operating on that elevated level, but an approximate was certainly welcome. With number two starter Phil Hughes struggling in April, the relatively unknown Ivan Nova being relied upon, and Freddy Garcia throwing moonshine balls, the need for a special offense in 2011, and by proxy, an effective Jeter, appeared dire.
Three thousand hits. The chase was afoot. And Derek would need his legs, considering the parade of choppers he beat into infields across America through the early months of 2011.
I would sit patiently on my couch, as Jeter searched for his swing, repeatedly failing to pick up runners in scoring position, striking out against hard throwing relievers, getting the bat knocked out of his hands by sinker slider fourth starter types. By June, the contract extension was inching closer to disaster territory. Jeter would probably be dropped in the batting order. The Yankees were staying in contention, despite his struggles. Granderson and Cano were carrying the torch. Freddy Garcia was getting outs, somehow. The Yankees were in the race. Maybe Jeter’s fall wouldn’t be the contrived controversy I anticipated. In a small, bizarre, and very real way, this bummed me out.
Jeter went on the disabled list. The Yankees played better without him. It was surreal to see. Derek Jeter, the guy you didn’t even bother pretending to be while playing stickball with your friends growing up, because it was just too easy, too easy like winning four World Championships and the Series MVP against the Mets, too easy, too perfect, too beyond us. In 2011, the stickball games were over, and a dude named Eduardo Nunez was outplaying our former hero. Had the riptide claimed another great player?
Jeter did record hit number three thousand, after returning from the disabled list. It was a home run against David Price. He had five hits that afternoon, including the game winner. The moment felt nostalgic while it was in progress. I emotionally steeled myself for all the ground ball outs waiting to be born.
But Jeter kept hitting.
Jeter hit like his old self. He hit like rust was some kind of unrealistic fantasy, instead of his new contract. He hit enough to reach the aesthetically pleasing plateau of .297 by the end of the season. Batting average is a flawed stat. But .297 and Derek Jeter went along together just fine. Much better than .270. As Jeter regained his game, the Yankees made their move on Boston. The concern about Adrian Gonzalez and the Sox owning the A.L. East for multiple seasons? By the end of the year, that seemed more unrealistic than Eduardo Nunez becoming the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees.
Yes, Yankees fans could be arrogant, totally spoiled, for a while longer. It had all been so unrealistic. All that talent coming together. The evolutionary, offense first shortstop. The smooth, switch-hitting centerfielder. The best closer ever. A-Rod switching to third? Really? Winning and winning and winning. All a dream, right? And I guess I can’t get mad at Jeter because it would be an acknowledgement that the dream will end, like all dreams do. That my favorite players will age. And fail. And lose. And the Yankees will be just another team.
I was at the game last night, against the Angels. Jeter homered. Off a lefty. A laser shot into the first or second row of the right field seats. My brother and I were cheering, and while watching the replay, agreed that Jeter hadn’t seemed this smooth mechanically since 2009. As of this morning, he’s hitting .361 with a .923 .OPS. You don’t keep track of stats in April, unless you like them.
I guess being a fan, watching a game, getting that engaged in such an abstract notion like competitive sports, is kind of like dreaming. And Derek Jeter is the type of player who makes the dream last a little longer. Bernie was, too. Our dreams usually don’t have endings. We just wake up. Baseball is a hard game. Not yet, says Jeter, with every hit.
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