When Derek Jeter announced to the world, via Facebook, that 2014 would be his last season, it made me realize just how old I’m getting. Forget the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles that have slowly crept onto my face in recent years or the gray hairs that have formed a starburst pattern on the top of my head and you can even forget about the fact that I will be turning 40-years-old this coming August. Forget all of it because it’s Derek Jeter’s fault that I feel as old as dirt this morning. Because gone are the days when players retiring from baseball were considerably older than me. Gone are the days when I could look at the big screen at the Stadium, see a player’s age and think, “I’m three years younger than him?” Now, I look at some players’ ages, do the math in my head and say to my brother, “Jesus, I could be his mother.”
But getting back to Jeter and what his retirement means to me and millions of others like me whose entire adulthood has been filled with memories of his hits, his milestones and five championships. Derek Jeter helped us experience what it was like to be the fans of a championship winning team.
At the time Jeter bursted onto the scene in 1996, the Yankees were in an epic, at least for their standards, soon-to-be 18-year long championship drought. In fact, most of us 1974 babies, couldn’t actually recall the Yankees winning it all in 1978. Sure, we like to tell people that we remember those days but really, what can a four-year-old actually recall? I vaguely remember hearing loud cheering from the living room in our apartment but at the time, I didn’t really know what was happening so my first real playoff memory was of the 1981 World Series when the Yankees fell to the Dodgers in six games and it was the first time I could remember baseball making me cry myself to sleep. Then there was nothing until 1995. And perhaps, even worse, the Mets were the toast of the town in the mid-80s when they won the World Series in 1986 and later made it to the NLCS in 1988. I remember friends of mine who were Mets fans trying to convert me because “The Yankees were losers and never win!”
Can you believe that nonsense?
Someone else experienced the 80s with us. Jeter, even though he was raised in Michigan, grew up to be a Yankee fan thanks to his his grandmother in New Jersey so all of the disappointing memories people my age have about the Yankees not making the playoffs for so many years, Derek Jeter has as well.
And that’s what makes his story even more special because someone from our age group who was raised a Yankee fan, who wanted to be a Yankee and who told everyone, his parents, his friends and his teachers, that he wanted to be one, actually did it. It wasn’t an unfulfilled pipe dream like my dream of becoming an actress. Derek Jeter became a New York Yankee and not only that, he helped them get back to the top of the baseball mountain.
When the Yankees finally made it into the playoffs in 1995 as the first ever American League Wild Card, “long suffering” Yankee fans got a brief taste of playoff baseball and while there were thrilling moments during the series – Mattingly’s home run and Leyritz’s walk-off in the 15th inning of Game Two, the ultimate series loss was very disappointing. After spending almost our entire childhoods, not knowing what winning a championship was like, getting to the playoffs and losing in the first round felt like the ultimate tease. We were thrilled at the team being up 2-0 in the series and just a few days later, we were crying in our beer, because the 1974 babies were finally able to drink legally, at a series loss.
Little did we know what was to come the following season.
1996 was a special year for Yankee fans. We had Dwight Gooden‘s no-hitter in May, the Yankees winning the Division in September and having an October to remember. On October 26, 1996, it finally happened, Mark Lemke, on the seventh pitch of his at bat against closer John Wetteland, hit a foul pop fly that landed in Charlie Hayes‘ glove and the Yankees were the champions of baseball.
All of the years of not winning were washed away in that one moment. Jeter, who hit .361 that year in the playoffs, and the Yankees helped us experience the exhilaration of finally seeing our team celebrate on our field and it was phenomenal. I think I might still be slightly hung over from that night.
And I remember thinking at the time, “Even if they only win one title, I will be happy.” I was on that championship high for weeks afterward and when Jeter won Rookie of the Year, I plastered my walls with every newspaper article and picture I could find.
After a year of mourning Don Mattingly‘s retirement, Jeter became my favorite Yankee.
But the Yankees, and more importantly Jeter, weren’t done in 1996 and after a while, Championships became expected and when they didn’t happen, it was a shock to the system – I actually shattered a TV remote when the Yankees lost to Cleveland in the 1997 Division Series. In 2001, I cried myself to sleep for a couple of hours and barely uttered a word until nearly 6 p.m. the next day.
Derek Jeter and his teammates helped make Yankee fans become completely insufferable during the late 90′s and early 2000′s because we felt were owed Championships from all the years they didn’t win any and we felt as though no one else deserved them. Even the kids who didn’t remember what it was like when the Yankees didn’t make the playoffs from 1982-1994 were becoming unbearable.
And as we all grew older, Jeter continued to play baseball at a high level, making the All-Star team 13 times, compiling over 200 hits in eight seasons and finishing second in M.V.P. voting to Justin Morneau in 2006. One of his biggest non-Championship moments was when we all watched Jeter, the guy who is known more as a singles hitter, club a home run, and a pretty deep one for that matter, for his 3000th hit. Oh, and he also finished 5-5 that day. Ho hum, he’s Derek Jeter, of course it would happen that way.
And let’s not forget the most recent championship in 2009. After another championship drought, the Yankees made it to the top of baseball once again with Derek Jeter helping guide his team to a World Series title.
He had a ring for every finger on one hand. Not too shabby.
Things were going swimmingly until that fateful night in October 2012 when Jeter fell to the ground, writhing in obvious pain. It was evident when he couldn’t stand that something had gone horribly wrong. The entire Stadium fell silent as Jeter was being carried off the field with what was later revealed to be a broken ankle. People both at home and in the Bronx, knew it was the beginning of the end though no one wanted to say it at the time. It was like watching a funeral procession: quiet and depressing.
People wondered, how can a soon to be 39-year-old come back from an injury like that? And unfortunately, last year proved that he couldn’t do it right away. Derek Jeter finally became mortal and his career is now coming to an end.
He is the last link to that late 90′s – early 2000′s juggernaut that seemed to win every year and now, he’s leaving the game of baseball. We will have one last season to see him put his right hand up as he steps into the batter’s box, we will have one more season to watch as he leads his team out of the dugout to take the field, we will have one last season of hearing a recording of Bob Sheppard announce his name. We will have one more season to say goodbye to Derek Jeter and don’t worry, it’s okay to be sad about it because the friend we never met but grew up with, is leaving us.