Derek Jeter’s retirement will leave a legacy you can’t patch over

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports
Derek Jeter and the patch the Yankees will wear from Sunday until the end of the season. (AP)

Derek Jeter patch

Derek Jeter and the patch the Yankees will wear from Sunday until the end of the season. (AP)

The patch is weird.

On the cap, on the uniform, the patch is weird because Derek Jeter will be wearing the cap and the uniform.

The man’s never had his name across the back of his home jersey, because that’s the way of the New York Yankees, and that fit Jeter, because no matter how good he became, no matter how he grew to represent that uniform, he stood pinstriped shoulder to pinstriped shoulder with the other 24.

Derek Jeter signs autographs for fans on Thursday. (AP)
Derek Jeter signs autographs for fans on Thursday. (AP)

Have a day for him. Have a whole season for him. Sell his name, his story, in the team stores. Retire his number while he’s still wearing it (which apparently isn’t happening). Hoist a plaque. Hell, bat him eighth, if you must.

But don’t make him wear his own patch.

It was weird with Mariano Rivera last year. It’s weird with Derek Jeter now.

But, you know, sometimes goodbyes are clumsy, a little emotional, and nobody – certainly not the Yankees or their iconic shortstop – is above that. So they stand on the front porch, Jeter prepared to go if he must, the Yankees prepared to let him if they must. Jeter goes for the handshake while the Yankees go for the hug. They laugh, the Yankees go for the handshake while Jeter goes for the hug, and in the confusion somebody ends up with a patch, which will be worn from Sunday through the end of the season, on their shirt.

It’s not bad. It’s not dumb. It’s not particularly overwrought. It’s just weird, because it doesn’t feel like Jeter, who he was or how he played or why he presented himself the way he did. He’s wandered through his final season wearing a bemused grin, almost embarrassed by the attention, perhaps unsure exactly what he’ll do with a paddleboard and cowboy boots, and definitely uncomfortable with farewells when there would be important games to play.

You may have your opinion on how many important games remain for Jeter and the Yankees. What is not in question is how Jeter will play them – the way he’s always played them, if not with the same results.

He’s a .261 hitter who reaches base about 31 percent of the time, which has him with the least productive two-hole batters in the game. Among regular and semi-regular No. 2 hitters, his OPS is slightly worse than Elvis Andrus’, slightly better than Gordon Beckham’s. Defensively, he’s better than Hanley Ramirez and a couple others.

But you knew that. He’s 40. He’s retiring. Says so on the damn patch. Come Sunday, the Yankees will tie it all together with great ceremony. There will be Hall of Famers. There will be speeches. There will be recitations of Jeter’s hardball deeds, and conversations about where he rests in the lineage of decorated Yankees. Maybe there’ll be some tears, because nobody wants to get old, and wasn’t it just yesterday this man was a gangly-ass prospect with a chance to be pretty good?

Let them say goodbye through numbers, championships, box-seat dives and flip plays.

I covered the Yankees, and therefore Jeter, in the late ’90s. They hardly ever lost. I’d sit in the press box, in what felt like the center of the universe, on cool October nights and wonder what was next. That old Yankee Stadium seemed alive; I thought I could see the building expand and contract, like it was breathing. Might’ve been all the coffee.

There was a pull to it, drawing you in, an intimacy amid the tens of thousands, and the man in the middle of it – almost literally – was Jeter. He was 24, 25 years old. Forever ago now. And he carved through all the noise. That’s what made him special, and does still.

He made Yankee Stadium on a Friday night in October a ballgame. Nothing bigger than that. Nothing smaller. He was the same player – the same guy – on those nights as he’d been in August, in May, in February.

Derek Jeter is enjoying his final season with the Yankees. (AP)
Derek Jeter is enjoying his final season with the Yankees. (AP)

There was a night in Baltimore in ’98. David Wells was knocked around a little. A couple balls dropped that maybe shouldn’t have. The next day, an intrepid reporter (not me), got word there had been some unkind words cast between Wells and Jeter. Out of earshot of the rest of the writers, this reporter approached Jeter about it as the team gathered on the field to stretch.

What happened next is what I tell people when they ask about covering Derek Jeter.

In a loud voice, just below a shout, Jeter said, “Hey Boomer!” so that everyone in the area – players, coaches, reporters – would turn. He asked Wells if he knew anything about an argument they might have had on the field the night before. Wells shrugged and shook his head. Jeter then took the question to various teammates, others who’d been on the field during the game. Did they recall hearing anything like that? Could they speak to this reporter’s question? Nope, they said. Nothing like that. Uh-uh.

Maybe they’d snipped at each other. Maybe they hadn’t. But suddenly it wasn’t so important.

Funny thing about New York, when everybody has a story, it’s not much of a story anymore. That one died along the third-base line in Baltimore, and the Yankees kept winning, and Wells won 18 games and Jeter hit .324. Jeter had made sure of it.

That, to me, was his brilliance. He’d taken a ballclub and given it a direction. He’d taken a city and given it a focus. It was about the baseball. It was always about the baseball.

That’s what made him, him. But you can’t fit that on a patch.

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