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Last Thursday I exchanged emails with my longtime reader and friend Hye Sun Canning, who’d been a little surprised I hadn’t written a column about Derek Jeter’s tying (at the time) Lou Gehrig’s Yankee hit record.
I told Hye Sun that I hadn’t commented because I like to avoid redundancy, and it seemed to me that others had already a done a very good job writing appreciations of Jeter’s achievement — which of course now includes actually breaking the Gehrig record. And make no mistake, his achievement is indisputably a great one, as there’s a small likelihood that Jeter’s franchise record will ever be surpassed. Its celebration doesn’t ignore or diminish the records set by all-time hit leaders on other teams, as some have argued. That to me is taking a jaundiced view. Other great players have had more hits in their careers, and some have had more hits with a single team. But — and I hope you’ll excuse this one lapse into repetitiveness — Derek Jeter now has more hits as a New York Yankee than anyone who has come before.
It’s a very big deal, and I’m glad Jeter, his loved ones and Yankees fans have gotten a chance to enjoy and applaud it. Like Jeter, we sometimes have to stop and relish these moments when they happen.
But back to Hye Sun. After I wrote her to explain why I hadn’t shared my feelings about Jeter’s feat in this spot, she went and put down her feelings in an e-mail, stating them so beautifully that I asked her permission to share an excerpt here with other readers. While her words were typed when Jeter had equaled Gehrig’s record, I think they’re no less apt now that he’s gone beyond it.
And so, from Hye Sun to me to you, an appreciation of Derek Jeter:
I was thinking about a baseball fate that allows a good player to shine on a good team. Yogi, for instance, with his ten rings. How is that possible to achieve? Would we have missed a talent like Jeter had he played for the Reds, who could have had him instead of us? How many stars aligned for Jeter, and for all Yankee fans, when a young kid’s dream actually came true after all his hard work. Drafted by the team he rooted for, he was allowed to blossom there along with other rookies, whom established a dynasty through the first years of his professional career. The mind boggles . . . .
Without a doubt, Jeter is my favorite ballplayer. I didn’t know it in the beginning, but there came a time when I would find myself a little disappointed if his name was not in the lineup. Somehow the Yankees didn’t look the same without him in those rare games. I love his single-mindedness in pursuing team wins instead of personal accolades. He seems genuinely embarrassed to be lauded so publicly for an individual accomplishment and I love that about him. Somehow, I feel Gehrig would have been the same way, though I know so little of him. When I saw his parents celebrating, I was wondering if any words could describe how proud they must be of their son. Jeter, in my mind, embodies everything a ball player should be. Bar none.
I was really glad he got over his mini-slump and got it done that one night, and I’ll be really happy if he gets a hit quickly tomorrow night and get this all behind him. There will be time enough after he finally hangs up his Number 2, when we can all gush ad infinitum about him and his achievements, and when all naysayers will have to begrudgingly agree that this ballplayer really was special and really did have those intangible qualities that can never be measured by numbers. When there will be no more games to be won for him and he can finally look at what he did.
May be he will never be able to stand with those players with gaudy numbers, because in the end, people are easily seduced by shiny things, but I think that makes his career all the more special. He has garnered respect from all not by flashy show of power and strength, but by hard work and everyday demeanor that allowed him to shine day in and day out, allowing us to notice him and truly appreciate what rare qualities he possesses. And no amount of home runs can ever overshadow his innate integrity and dignity, which exists in the rarest of baseball players , who have to cope with more failure than success every time they play.
Truly we were all blessed by the baseball gods when he came to us and I, for one, am grateful that I got to watch his wonderful career as a Yankee.
Thank you, Hye Sun.
You thought he’d probably do it. His manager and teammates thought he’d probably do it. And, in his heart, Andy Pettitte probably believed he was on his way to throwing a perfect game too.
“After the fifth inning, I kinda started thinking about it a little bit,” Pettitte would say with the characteristic understatement that’s one of his most endearing qualities.
This past July, the White Sox’s Mark Buehrle went the distance to throw the 18th perfect game in Major League baseball history. As Pettitte notched his first 20 outs over seven and a third innings, many of us felt a gaining sense that he was on his way to earning Number Nineteen.
Over the course of a baseball season, there are generally several bids at perfect games that are broken up late. Not all have the same inexorable feel that Pettitte’s did through most of Monday night in Baltimore. Maybe it was subjective — we root our hearts out for Andy Pettitte because he’s embodied the best of what it is to be Yankee for so long. Maybe it was also because Jerry Hairston Jr.’s excellent barehanded play on a slow-rolling groundball in the sixth inning made us think that was the one that could have set things awry.
Unfortunately it didn’t happen for Pettitte. With two outs in the seventh inning, Hairston, who’d made that great play just one inning earlier, bobbled a groundball to third and ended his bid at perfection.
Pettitte’s handling of the situation may tell more about him than we might have learned had he succeeded. After the Hairston error, he gave up a single to Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis, then gathered himself and went on to close out the frame with a groundout to short, preserving the Yankees’ 5-0 lead. An inning later, no longer focused on preserving his no-hitter, he surrendered a leadoff homer to Melvin Mora, but went on to elicit two strikeouts and a groundout, ending his night with eight innings of one-run ball. Final score, 5-1 Yanks.
Pettitte never took his mind off what was most important, never let the game get away from him. And in the clubhouse afterward, he noticed Hairston walking with his “head down” and consoled him — joking, as Hairston would reveal, “that he didn’t want to have to throw nine innings anyway.”
In a way the almost perfect game is emblematic of Pettitte’s career. A homegrown mainstay of four World Championship Yankee teams — and Joe Torre’s perennial stopper — the humble Pettitte has long lived in the shadow of pitchers with more out-front personalities or gaudier career numbers. In 2003, after a 21-win season in which he threw to a 4.02 ERA and went on to a tremendous postseason, the Yankees botched their contract negotiations with the left-hander and let him slip away to the Houston Astros for three years. Pettitte earned $31.5 million from the Astros. What’s often forgotten is that the Red Sox were prepared to pay him more for a longer-term contract — some reports had the sum exceeding $50 million. Pettitte canceled out on a scheduled tour of Fenway Park and Boston, however, eschewing the Sox’s overtures because he knew he could never pitch for the Yanks’ archrival.
Last season, Pettitte played through a shoulder injury because he and Mike Mussina were the last men standing in a decimated Yankee rotation. Even as the team’s playoff chances completely evaporated in August and September, he continued to pitch rather than be put on the disabled list. Coming off that gritty second half, Pettitte was finally made a belated take-it-or-leave-it offer that paid him $5.5 million in guaranteed money and an additional $6.5 in performance incentives. This was down from the $16 million guaranteed salary he earned in 2008. The rationale was that he was a dispensable fifth starter in a rotation that would include CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Chien-Ming Wang and Joba Chamberlain.
Pettitte accepted the deal because he wanted to go on pitching and could not see himself as anything but a Yankee. Now well on his way to earning his incentives, he has become the second-best pitcher in the Yankees’ rotation after Sabathia, the team’s ace, with Wang a nonfactor in the season. If the Yankees reach the playoffs this year, and merit alone predicated the order of the postseason rotation, Pettitte would start Game Two of the ALDS. But because Joe Girardi may want to break up his two left-handed hurlers, and more so because Pettitte will likely again be considered the stopper, we can expect him to start a pivotal Game Three.
In his fifteenth season as a Major League player — a season when he was signed, if not quite as an afterthought, then as a nonessential component — Andy Pettitte is once more finding himself absolutely essential to the Yankees postseason aspirations.
Pettitte isn’t the greatest pitcher ever to wear pinstripes. There’s barely a chance he will have a plaque in Cooperstown. But in imperfection, he is the perfect pitcher to capture the lasting respect and affection of Yankee fans.
As of Monday night, Derek Jeter’s 2009 batting average is .334 with an .880 OPS (on-base and slugging percentages). He has hit 17 home runs and stolen 23 bases. His improved fielding has been written about extensively, as is the fact that he is primed to surpass Lou Gehrig’s all-time Yankee hit record (2,721).
And he is increasingly becoming a prime candidate for season’s American League MVP.
Before this season, though, we were mostly reading analysis and commentary speculating about how the Yankees were going to deal with a fading Jeter. Should they re-sign him after his current contract expires? Trade him preemptively? Or perhaps move him to the outfield — or somewhere else. Anywhere but the shortstop position. Jeter was a defensive liability, we read. And his days as an offensive force were over. What was left, according to various statistical breakdowns and keen scouting observations, was a substandard defensive shortstop and Punch-and-Judy singles hitter.
The New York Post‘s Joel Sherman was far from alone in raising that cry, but he did it with the singular bombastic cruelty that’s become his career trademark.
In his February 6, 2009 column for the Post (Jeter’s Next Contract Will Be Mother of All Yankee Flaps), Sherman argued that “kowtowing to Jeter’s legacy by paying him lavishly and keeping him at short means tying yourself to a late-30s icon well beyond his expiration date.”
Sherman went on to type this:
“Jeter’s offense already is trending the wrong way. Over the last three seasons, his OPS has gone from .900 to .840 to .771; his homers from 14 to 12 to 11; his steals from 34 to 15 to 11. What do you think his offense will look like in two years?
And how about his defense? Every statistical evaluation shows Jeter’s range to consistently be among the Majors’ worst, and the scouting community pretty much confirms that.
By 2011, the Yanks could have either Jeter or just his future plaque at Monument Park play short; they will have about the same range.”
The above is an example of how little the analysts, commentators and stat geeks know about baseball, and why we need to keep level heads, remain patient, and be careful about who we consider reliable experts.
I believe that when Jeter’s contra
ct is up he will re-sign with the Yankees for the remainder of his career. To paraphrase Girardi, he will remain shortstop as long as he is willing and able to play the position. And when he is no longer able, Jeter and the Yankees will decide what is best for the team.
Jeter has always handled every facet of his professional life in exemplary fashion. There is nothing to indicate he won’t handle its waning days, whenever they may come, with equal style.
I’ve said nothing here about the latest contortion of the Joba Rules because there’s really very little worth saying. The Yankees long ago committed to making Chamberlain a starting pitcher. In the interests of protecting his arm from injury, they determined that would not throw more than a certain number of innings — said to be 160 — this season. And they have stuck to their plan.
The penultimate (so far) version of the rules, which provided extra days’ rest between starts, clearly wasn’t working for Chamberlain. His rhythm was off, his performances were mediocre. So the Yanks’ modified their plan — and deserve credit for that.
I don’t know if Chamberlain pitching a truncated number of innings every five days will work any better than having him pitch on a staggered schedule with long layoffs between starts. The truth is nobody knows, including the Yankees, who are attempting something one else has done in my mind — that is, trying, at nearly all cost, to protect the career longevity of a prized young player while keeping him integral to a pennant race and possible run for the World Championship.
Enough Joba blabber, folks. The Yanks are doing what they feel they must do with him. We can praise or pillory them come November after we’ve seen how things shake out.
In the good old days, it was the Red Sox that did the bad little things to lose games.
There’s Buckner’s fumbled play at first base, of course. That’s the epitome. The Sox are one out away from winning the 1986 World Series, one out from beating the Mets at Shea, and Buckner lets Mookie Wilson’s easy grounder slip under his glove into the outfield to tie the game, and the rest is bitter history for Sox fans. Too much.
But we don’t need to go back that far. In the late nineties, and up till they finally celebrated on the field at Yankee Stadium in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS on the way to winning it all, the Red Sox made all kinds of slip-ups that gave Yankees fans chuckles.
Some forget that the games would be close lots of the time. That was a big part of the fun, what made watching the Yankees beating the Red Sox such a delight. The Boston teams were tough, and scrappy, and talented, and they fought hard till the bitter end. But there would always be that one act of self-destruction, a bobble, base-running mistake or managerial gaffe that made you slap your knees till your hands were raw while you almost choked on your own hoots of laughter.
Nomar Garciaparra gave us plenty of great moments. An athletic shortstop, sure, but remember how he’d sling the ball into stands on overthrows to first base? And Todd Walker, what a pleasure it was watching him boot those balls at second. And let’s not forget Trot Nixon in the outfield. He kinda reminds me of a surly version of Nick Swisher. A hardnosed player who did loads of things right until he would do the one thing wrong at the worst possible time — like misjudging a fly ball to blow an easy catch, or getting caught napping off a base pad — that ultimately helped his team lose.
The Red Sox usually played with heart and effort. They threatened, and they got close. But in the final tally, in the box score, they always came out short.
It was like the Yankees were in their heads or something.
A game in 2002 comes to mind. Let me take you back. It’s late July in the wonderful Grady Little Era, and the Sox come into Yankee Stadium trailing the Yankees by a couple of games for first place. Jeff Weaver’s pitching for the Yankees, he’s got a four-run lead in the early innings, but the Sox come all the way back to tie the game, and then take the lead. But in the bottom of the ninth, Nixon lets a fly ball off Bernie Williams’ bat get by his glove out in right and the Yankees tie the game, Enrique Wilson scoring all the way from first. Even before that, though, in the top of the inning, Jose Offerman, who played a bunch of different positions, got nailed recklessly trying to steal third base with one out, maybe costing the Sox some tack-on runs.
But I don’t want to forget the best part. This, again, is at the bottom of the ninth inning, when Grady goes for his five-man infield deployment. With Williams on base, and one out, Little has his closer, Ugueth Urbina, intentionally load the bases with two walks, and pulls an outfielder out of position for that five-man infield configuration he loved so dearly, hoping to elicit a double play from the next Yankee batter up at the plate, Jorge Posada.
And, making a long story short, Posada walks in the winning run.
In those days, that kind of Red Sox loss was sweet and natural as the sugar in Pepsi Throwback.
And they kept on coming, through 2003, and then into the next year. In 2004, in fact, David Ortiz tried his best to reenact the Buckner error for young Sox fans who might have been unaware of their painful heritage.
What made it such a gas was that, at first, Ortiz was the hero. He drives in a run early, then homers in the sixth inning to make the score 2-0 Red Sox. And that’s how things stay until the bottom of the seventh, when Big Papi, who’s playing first base that day, muffs what should be a groundball out, and instead brings home two Yankee baserunners to tie the game. The very next inning, Gary Sheffield would double in the winning run for the Yankees.
“My glove was kind of soft. Maybe that’s why it went through,” Ortiz said afterward.
What a hoot. And things got even better the next day, in the 13-inning marathon that saw Derek Jeter’s fearless dive into the stands to catch a Nixon fly ball that would have dropped in for a potentially game-winning base hit, sacrificing his body to make one of the best plays you’ll ever see in what would also become one of the best Yankee victories over the Sox you’ll ever see.
With that win the Yankees swept the series, sending their archrivals back to Beantown to celebrate the July 4th holiday with their tails between their legs.
As I say, those were the days.
I couldn’t help but think of them watching the Yankees lose to the Sox Wednesday night. Take the top of the second, for instance. Matsui doubles and Swisher lays down a surprise bunt for a base hit, and then it’s first and third with nobody out. But then Melky Cabrera hits a hard shot to short, and Swisher’s strayed too far from the bag, and he gets easily doubled off. It would take a Jeter fly ball out to officially end the rally, but it really died with Swisher’s slipup. And he would further undermine the Yankees’ cause in the bottom of the inning misplaying what should have been a fly ball out to hand the Sox a run and compound Chien-Ming Wang’s struggles.
Give Swisher credit. He’d make a great catch later in the game. And he’d even hurl himself into the stands to try and make another. But in the end, it was the bad little things he did that hurt him.
We’ve seen lots of those things this series, and, so far, this whole season between the Yankees and Red Sox. It’s just like Sox players used to do, especially at Yankee Stadium. Except now the shoe — or maybe I should say the cleat — is on the other foot.
Now the point of all this isn’t to make everyone in Yankeeland feel more miserable than they already are. It’s to emphasize that baseball, more than any other sport, is one in which paying attention to details matter. The little things are what win or lose baseball games. Right now, when they play the Red Sox, the Yankees are doing all the bad little things, and that’s why they’re down 7-0 in the season series.
Here’s something to consider, though.
As I mentioned before, Ortiz’s Buckneresque play, and the Great Jeter Dive Game that capped the Yankee sweep of the Sox in July, all came in 2004.
That October, as nobody should have to be reminded, the Sox would turn the tables in historic fashion. Fortunes can change very quickly in baseball. And the players can make their own fortune.
Crestfallen Yankee fans might want to keep that mind as they drag through Thursday morning and afternoon, hoping for CC Sabathia to take the mound and prevent a sweep.
As might Red Sox fans amid their present good cheer.