It's the dead of February, and a storm of (at this writing) unknown quantity is bearing down on Boston. Baseball, though our boys have arrived in Fort Myers, seems very far away. And yet baseball's the big story all of a sudden, because one of its greats has announced his intention to leave the sport behind. Derek Jeter will be retiring at the end of the year, putting an end date on one of the more impressive careers in recent baseball history. From a pure baseball perspective, this brings up a few big questions.
Is he the greatest shortstop ever? Nope. Honus Wagner existed, as did Cal Ripken. Also that steroid-tainted dude who Jeter wouldn't move off short for, despite him being better in every conceivable way other than "gift baskets per week."
Will he be a unanimous Hall of Famer? Nope. Because no one ever will. Beyond the "he played in the Steroid Era" numbskulls, there will always be that one guy who decides, all on his own, that Babe Ruth wasn't unanimous, and therefore no one will be. He'll fly in, and that's all that matters.
Is he the greatest Yankee ever? Nope. See above, re: Ruth. Also Gehrig, Mantle, Berra, and arguably DiMaggio. He's in the conversation, which alone is ridiculous.
But those questions are all going to be asked by relatively neutral observers. Writers who legitimately have no personal opinion on Jeter, or have so thoroughly bathed in the Kool-Aid of objective journalism that they'd never say a controversial word about the guy. I am not neutral on the subject of Derek Jeter, and I daresay neither are most of the readers of this blog. Jeter came into the league when I was 11 years old, and I've spent a decent amount of the intervening two decades hating the guy. But as one of the greatest Bostonians once said, who judges best of a man, his enemies or himself? (Franklin probably meant this as an "ignore the haters" line, because that's how Ben rolled. I'm gonna twist it, because that line is ambiguous, which Ben would've known if he had a better editor.)
It would take the most ridiculous caricature of a Boston homer to deny that Jeter's among the all-time greats at his position and for his franchise. A career slash line of .312/.381/.446 is impressive anyway, to do it while playing
great good adequate defense at short is damn impressive. To do it for 19 years on a team that won five rings is easy Hall of Fame territory. So I won't indulge my hatred too much. I'll not point out that Nomar Garciaparra had a better peak, or that Jeter's 838 career postseason OPS is only five points better than A-Rod's 833. And over a hundred points worse than David Ortiz's 962. I certainly won't point out that he went 6 for 30 and missed the tag on Dave Roberts in the 2004 ALCS. That would be petty.
Also petty? Including this picture of a bobblehead. My friend meant it as a troll, since I'm a Red Sox fan and it's a Derek Jeter bobblehead. But he's missing his bat, which I found utterly hilarious given how Jetes hit last year.
Anyway. Let's get to the real point here, since if one thing's become clear over two years writing here, it's that I basically only write about players when I can turn them into a larger metaphor. It's dehumanizing and condescending, I know, but my greatest hope is that in 75 years someone will name an ESPN vanity project after me.
Derek Jeter is the Yankees, and has been for the better part of two decades. I don't think anyone would argue that. He's the ideal player for the franchise. Classy, handsome, devoted to winning, clean-shaven, and expensive. And, of course, very, very good at baseball. He's been the focus not only for his own team and fans, but for everyone else in baseball. Love the Yankees or hate them, Jeter's what you picture first. Come September, he'll be gone, and I'm not sure anyone can say who'll replace him.
Sizemore leads Red Sox players to watch in spring
For the most part, spring training is incredibly overrated. There are a few players on the Red Sox for whom this preseason will matter, though.
The obvious successor to Jeter was Robinson Cano. He had everything you'd want. Immense talent, great charisma, clear love of the game. The sort of guy that other teams could resent for his success, but never truly despise out of sheer respect. But Seattle decided that the vague appearance of contention was worth a quarter-billion dollars, and so Robbie went off into the West. Now the Yankees, the great franchise that dominated a century of pro baseball, sits without an obvious centerpiece. They've lost their captain, having just last year lost their moral center. It's not that they won't contend. It's that I'm not sure what the Yankees are doing. Sure, they signed Jacoby Ellsbury to patrol center, and Masahiro Tanaka to hopefully pitch well, and Brian McCann to make sure no opposing players enjoy their job. But where is that team going?
2014 is going to be, I think, a significant year in defining the American League East for the foreseeable future, and it's entirely because of the shortstops of the signature franchises of the division. In New York, Derek Jeter, who's been the standard at the position for two decades, will be saying his farewell to the league. In Boston, Xander Bogaerts will be making his presence known to every pitcher with a lazy fastball or a misplaced curve. And it's a beautiful display of where these two classic clubs find themselves as the 2014 season approaches.
For the better part of the last century, the Yankees were baseball. They contended every year, they made the playoffs many of those years, and they won literally a quarter of all the championships. For most of that time, the Red Sox were built for second place. Too slow, too iron-gloved, too bat-heavy, and often just too racist to truly contend. The Boston American League club has made the playoffs 21 times and won eight titles, and seven of those playoffs and three titles have come in the last decade. They are the most successful team of the admittedly young 21st century.
More importantly, they seem set up to stay that way. Xander Bogaerts represents only the first and most talented arrival of a wave of young talent in the Boston farm system. Perhaps even more importantly, he and the guys behind him have that most valuable of all things in a prospect: a high floor. Every analyst looking at the top tier of Red Sox minor league talent sees at worst a collection of major-league regulars. A team of Xander Bogaerts, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, and a bunch of major-league regulars can win you a lot of games. Especially when you have $120 million to spend on filling out the roster (Thanks again, Dodgers!)
Meanwhile, a few hours down I-95, the Yankees spent damn near a half-billion dollars this offseason, and they still only have three reliable starters and a deep outfield. Their infield is a collection of has-beens and never-weres. And their farm system is barren enough that they felt the need to spend that immense sum rather than try to let the kids play. They're building for 2014, because they have no idea what 2015 will look like.
To put it more simply, the Yankees are about to spend 2014 bidding farewell to Derek Jeter, the man who's defined their last two decades. The Red Sox are going to spend 2014 nurturing Xander Bogaerts, the man who will, if things play out, define their next two decades.
But because I'm a Boston fan, and an Irishman, I must admit the truth of the epitaph I chose as the epigraph of this column. Someday, in the distant future, when Portland and Montreal have baseball teams, when replay is mandatory for any close call in the playoffs, when kids wonder what "student loans" were, Xander Bogaerts, too, will come to the end of his career. He'll announce that after seven rings, 2,500 hits, 450 home runs, and a third-place finish in the mayor's race, that the time has come to end his career. We'll cry, and wail, and buy our commemorative jerseys, and some other team's bloggers will talk about how it's their turn.
And if indeed this is a just and good universe, it won't be the Rays.