A decade ago, when it was first announced that Alex Rodriguez was acquired by the New York Yankees, it had appeared that the Bronx Bombers had added a true legacy player to an already impressive line-up, and thereby only enhanced their prospects of success for years to come. With A-Rod’s formidable skills in the Yankee clubhouse, the only real question now was how he and the “Face of the Yankees Franchise” would co-exist. That “face”, of course, was a guy named Derek Jeter.
It had almost seemed pre-ordained that the pairing would happen. These two exciting players, still in their primes, once close friends whose careers had started within a year of each other, who had each signed landmark contracts, and were considered flagship players for Major League Baseball’s marketing machine, would together form a one-two punch not seen since the days of Ruth and Gehrig. This modern-day dynamic duo would help cement the Yankee dynasty that had continued into the new century, but was clearly showing some cracks in the foundation after falling to the young and hungry Marlins in the World Series the prior autumn.
What a difference a decade makes.
With Derek Jeter’s Facebook announcement that 2014 would be his final Pinstripe Campaign, almost 10 years to the day that the Yankees acquired A-Rod, a final exclamation point has been placed after the narrative of how greatly the careers of these two icons have diverged. Jeter will exit the game with nothing but accolades and adulation trailing in the breeze behind him. A-Rod will sit out the 2014 season, suspended for his alleged involvement in the BioGenesis scandal, with more than enough time on his hands to reflect on what might have been. Jeter will leave behind a treasure trove of memories that justify nicknames such as “Captain Clutch” and “Mr. November”. A-Rod, conversely, must endure the judgmental finger of history as a playoff bust, the one notable exception being 2009, when his timely blasts were a major factor in the Yankees’ 27th World Championship, the lone Series win (and appearance) that the Jeter/A-Rod pairing produced for baseball’s most storied franchise.
Perhaps the sharpest irony (and tragedy) to the tale of how the career paths of both players ultimately played out is the fact that A-Rod, from the outset, clearly had the greater gifts than Jeter. A-Rod’s combination of prodigious power and speed (one of a handful of “40-40 men”), not to mention batting skill and fielding prowess, had him marked as baseball’s current “Chosen One” in the eyes of many. Above and beyond his talent, A-Rod also had a work ethic to boot.
Jeter, by contrast, joined the Yankees as the proverbial “table setter”, a lunch-pail type whose job it is to be on base when the Goliaths like A-Rod step into the box, big lumber on their broad shoulders, ready to give the ravenous masses what they truly crave.
Yet, as their respective careers evolved, it was Jeter who, in the perception of the fans and baseball media, transfigured into the “big moment” player, the one fans ached to see come up at that crucial juncture of a tight contest. A-Rod’s stature, meanwhile, seemed to literally shrivel up with the passage of time, as though years of repeated failure in playoff situations simply overwhelmed his fragile psyche. Jeter’s successes were seemingly a testament to that quiet inner strength he has always possessed, and a pungent reminder to many that raw physical skill is of limited value if the man inside is not equal to the task as well.
Of course, the depth of a player’s legacy in a game like professional baseball is as much tied to statistics as it is to performance in critical moments, as baseball is a numbers game by nature. Both Jeter and A-Rod have obviously amassed numbers that simply can’t be ignored. Although A-Rod will not be adding to his career totals in 2014, should he return in 2015 and have a reasonably productive season, he will likely pass Willie Mays to become 4th all-time in home runs, and could reach milestones such as 3000 career hits, 2000 career RBI, and 2000 career runs. He is already the career leader in grand slams (24). Totals of this kind are the stuff of pure baseball legend and a stat-lover’s feast, and yet they will always be hopelessly tainted, and unable to be celebrated in Cooperstown or anywhere else. A-Rod’s totals will forever be viewed as the final word in statistical excess, completely devoid of any joy.
Jeter’s numbers, though impressive, cannot possibly match A-Rod’s in their scope, but embody a much more significant quality, namely, that undeniable feeling that they were compiled as a by-product of a pure, elemental love for the game, and an indomitable desire to win. Jeter’s numbers have a special dimension to them that in the final analysis gives them a permanent place in the hearts of fans.
Perhaps the following anecdote would capably serve as a final commentary on the legacies of these two players. Allow the stage to be set: The date is July 28, 2013, Yankees versus Rays at the Stadium. It has been over a month since a right-handed Yankees batter has homered. It has been two weeks since any player on the Yankees has homered, adding an almost darkly comedic quality to a team historically referred to as the Bronx Bombers. In the bottom of the first, the Captain strides to the plate, appearing in only his second game of the season, 17 days removed from his first attempt to return to regular play. On the first pitch he sees, Jeter drives the ball into the seats, sending John Sterling into a fit of broadcast frenzy. Just like that, both infamous streaks are history, and suddenly the stadium is awash in hope. The Yankees, energized by their beloved No. 2, end up winning the game in walk-off fashion.
Somewhere, A-Rod, a day removed from his 38th birthday, is either watching the game, or has eventually learned of its circumstances. In a pensive moment, he perhaps indulges himself in a belated vicarious birthday wish…………
If only I could have been Derek Jeter.