I used to feel that the retirement of one’s sporting heroes was a sign of ageing.
I remember when Borg quit, for the first time, almost as if, having finally lost to McEnroe at Wimbledon, the game was over. I pass over his quixotic and unsuccessful comeback.
Geoffrey Boycott retired having accumulated over 100 first class hundreds, and having broken the Test career scoring record. He succeeded, I think, in aggravating more people in cricket than anyone since Douglas Jardine, but his single-mindedness and determination allowed him to reach heights that more talented batsmen failed to approach. He was once dropped from the England team for scoring a double hundred too slowly! There followed many years after his retirement when England would have given anything for a player to score 200.
Kenny Dalglish finally moved from the playing field where he could never stop being successful to the dugout, where he initially continued that success, both at Liverpool and Blackburn.
With golfers it is different – they never seem to retire, instead they fade away to uncompetitiveness, but still get their massive cheers as they go down the 18th fairway at the Open. But Seve Ballesteros, wonderful Seve, did not survive to head into his later years to that acclaim. He remains alive in the minds of Europe’s golfers, as seen by his undoubted presence at the Ryder Cup. And anyone who was privileged enough to have been at St Andrew’s on the final day of the 1984 Open to see Seve hole his put on the last to win, and go into his fist pumping celebration, before they became commonplace, and to see the broadest smile ever to light up a sporting stage, will never forget the moment or the man.
Racing drivers retired – some by choice – some by necessity – and some died on the track. Or, like Graham Hill, in a crash in a private plane. I still recall watching the BBC newsreader announcing his death. Prost, Senna, Hunt, Lauda, Rosberg, Andretti… the line of greats I remember watching and following goes on.
Ian Botham – I followed his career from when he came to prominence as a teenager by being hit in the face by an Andy Roberts bouncer (no helmets in those days), getting back up, spitting out blood and teeth, and scoring a match-winning innings for Somerset. He got to the Test team in 1977, the same year as Boycott’s triumphant return. Botham’s first Test wicket was a long hop which Greg Chappell could have hit anywhere – he hit it straight to a fielder.
He finished the series injured, but was already well on his way to being a fixture in the side. After that runs, wickets, catches and publicity, good and bad, followed pell mell. At a time of great all rounders, like Richard Hadlee, Kapil Dev, Imran Khan and Clive Rice, he was the best.
In 1981, after resigning as England captain, and then having Alec Bedser, Chairman of Selectors tell the press they had been about to sack him anyway, he came back at Headingley, abetted by Bob Willis’ best bowling ever, and again at Old Trafford and Edgbaston, destroying the Australians and making himself a sporting hero.
Eventually, after talk of Hollywood, a drugs ban, a story book return, charity walks the length and breadth of Britain and elsewhere, and after falling out with Somerset when they dispensed with the greats, Viv Richards and Joel Garner, he finally retired.
But whilst seeing your sporting heroes retire makes you appreciate the passing of the ages, then seeing their offspring and the children of other sports stars have extended careers or even reach retirement does so even more starkly!
Whether it was Liam Botham, or Damon Hill, Michael Andretti or Nico Rosberg, Paul Dalglish or Frank Lampard Junior, Old Father Time’s presence becomes ever more obvious.
And so, after that preamble, and in further contemplation of the passage of time, we come to New Yankee Stadium on Saturday, where the New York Yankees entertained the Detroit Tigers in the first match of the best of seven American League Championship Series.
For those who don’t know, the Yankees, despite being the most famous baseball team, and some would have it that they are the most famous sports team in the world, had a long spell in the doldrums until in the 1990’s they were lucky enough to have a marvellous crop of rookies come together at once. They formed the foundation for a run of success lasting almost 20 years, under the management of Joe Torre and Joe Girardi.
As a baseball fan who first got hooked on the game in the late 1990’s, it was natural for me to adopt the Yankees as my team. They were very successful, and as a result were on Channel 5 more often than any other team. They were also the team with the most history, and the greats of the Yankees were known to people who did would not recognise a suicide squeeze from a sacrifice fly. DiMaggio, Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, Yogi Berra…the list goes on, and even if people in Scotland did not know much of the Yankees, we knew the DiMaggio restaurant chain, that Joe D had married Marilyn Monroe, that Babe Ruth had been a larger than life American hero, and that Yogi Bear was smarter than the average, even if we did not know he was based on the Yankee catcher.
And in the late 1990’s the core of the Yankee team was in place, as it would be for years to come.
There was Mariano Rivera, the King of the closers. Even though statistics show that it makes little difference who pitches the ninth inning to close out a win, with Rivera it was different. Especially in the playoffs, his appearance meant that there was no doubt how the game would end, making the victory, for example, by the Diamondbacks in 2001 over him even more remarkable.
Andy Pettite was in place in the starting rotation – the big lefty producing consistent positive results year after year, and with the best pick-off move to first base for many a long year.
Jorge Posada was the catcher, who never should have been a catcher. But he slotted into the team behind the plate and gave the Yankees production off his bat which would have justified his place at other easier positions on the field, and whose leadership was instrumental in so many of the Yankees’ wins.
And finally, the last, but by no means least, member of the Core Four, was Derek Jeter, the reason for writing this post.
As the years have passed, Pettite left to play for Houston, retired and returned. Posada finally ran out of playing time and retired. Rivera suffered injury at the start of this season which knocked him out of the game for the year and it is not clear if he will return.
Jeter was there through it all, rarely being injured enough to miss game time. He survived the initial doubts of owner George Steinbrenner, whose excesses made the most eccentric of football owners look like the most placid and even tempered. Steinbrenner delighted in signing expensive free agents, even where he had rookies and prospects as good if not better. In fact his was the “Championship Manager” style of roster building. When picking one’s computerised team, the tendency is to acquire players one has heard of – even if they are past their peak. On that basis I once had a Championship Manager team of my own with Zidane, Henry, Viera and Bierhoff playing in the SPL. The fact that they were all well in their 40’s at the time explains why I was able to tempt them to Scotland!
Steinbrenner built his teams a bit like that, but thanks to him having been suspended from baseball for a period for hiring a private detective to “dig the dirt” on one of his own players, his immediate wish to trade off his rookies was tempered enough for a dynasty to grow. By the time he took up the reins again, the four mentioned were established in the Bronx.
And so Jeter played on and on, into his 18th professional season this year. He picked up award after award, and his signature plays, such as his flip to get Jeremy Giambi at the plate, and his head-first dive into the stand to catch a foul ball against the Red Sox are engraved on the minds of baseball fans everywhere, whether you liked the Yankees or not.
Yankee fans love Jeter – one gets the impression every one else didn’t.
He always spoke to the the press and never said anything controversial. Indeed, his most controversial press interaction came for things he didn’t say, as when Alex Rodriguez, the highest paid sportsman in the world, joined the Yankees, and Jeter failed to pledge undying love for his new team-mate.
For all the criticism of his fielding, and the recognition that moving to his left he was by no means a Gold Glover, he was there each day as shortstop and Captain. Always batting at the top of the order or in the two slot. It took a lot to knock him out of a game and he honoured the sport, being respectful of opponents and of his place in the history of baseball. As he passed various record holders and moved up the ranks for appearances and hits, he always maintained a positive modesty about his achievements.
Bearing in mind that the US has, along with other countries, no shortage of loud mouthed stars, his anodyne comments were welcome. Indeed, in showing that it is not easy to maintain the position of talking a lot but saying nothing we have Jeter’s team-mate A-Rod, whose every utterance offers the press a story.
Never touched by scandal, and never making an issue of his mixed race, though clearly immensely proud when his parents have attended Yankee Stadium, he has been the focus for what he does on the field, and even his long engagement, now terminated, to actress Minka Kelly, did not turn them into fodder for the paparazzi and gossip columnists (or at least with anything really to gossip about!)
Despite predictions of his demise every year since about 2004, he continued to stride out to the plate, still having his name and number announced by legendary Bob Sheppard, the long time Yankee announcer who died a couple of years ago.
There is also something special about the fact that Jeter wears the Yankee pinstripes, which of course have no names on the strips, only numbers, and that his number is 2.
And now, after 18 years at shortstop, and countless play-off games, he will play no more part in this season, and possibly never play baseball again. He suffered a broken ankle against the Tigers and his loss hung like a pall over Yankee Stadium as Game 1 was lost in extra innings, and Game 2 in a depressing, wet blanket, performance where the Yankees were shut out, and never looked like scoring at all.
Jeter’s broken ankle was one of those injuries which immediately appears bad, simply because the injured man hardly moves. One sure way of detecting a diving footballer is to watch them hit the deck and roll over and over. Serious injuries do not cause that. They result in stillness, as the injured player tries to control the pain and not make the injury worse.
As Jeter lay still on the diamond, the whole stadium was hushed, and never really recovered.
Derek Jeter, the man who has been at shortstop since Bill Clinton was midway through his presidency, since the year before Tony Blair became Prime Minister, was no longer at his post.
Few now expect the Yankees, already struggling with what feels like half the lineup batting abominably, to overcome the loss of Jeter and beat the Tigers. Even fewer see them then beating the Giants or Cardinals to the World Series, even though a Yankees/Giants series would restore one of the great baseball rivalries dating back to the Giants in Brooklyn.
The Yankees have stated that Jeter should make a full recovery. However, any 38 year old sportsman will struggle to recover from a serious, or even minor injury. As Will Carroll, Internet guru on sports injuries says, at this stage of a career a particularly vigorous sneezing fit gives cause for concern!
No one who has seen Jeter’s career will write him off. However, come Opening Day next season, will we see Derek Jeter manning his usual spot on the field, and hear Bob Shepard’s magisterial tones, or are we now on the five year wait for his admission as a first ballot, and what should, but will not be, a unanimous choice for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Jeter’s star is fading – it might not have gone out quite yet – but with the waning of the light comes yet another sign of passing days. Many Yankee fans, including me, have never seen anyone else as the regular shortstop for the Yankees.
Jeter moving from the field to become one of Yankee Stadium’s ghosts shows us that, no matter what, time passes, and it does not return.
Posted by Paul McConville