Sunday, April 01, 2012

N.Y. Yankees ~ Derek Jeter's Rectangular Cardboard Player Summary

From the desk of:   BLAME CARLOS MAY

New York YANKEES:   Derek Jeter; Resurrecting What it Means to be a 1 in 100 Hall of Fame Player.

In a nostalgic, if not a literal sense, the back of Derek Jeter's baseball card is a throwback to those circa the 1974 Topps era; the first season I personally started buying baseball cards.  Where when you flipped it over, there were orderly columns headed by lettered abbreviations, with neatly detailed statistics below them, detailing a player's history spent with ONE TEAM.

The cards red like ancient tablets decipherable by only the most astute baseballologist or a grade school kid.  But once in the hands of either, one instantly knew how to read one, and exactly what all the information and values meant.  Somehow, we inherently understood the parameters of greatness, and interpreted baseball cards accordingly.

Some red like Epics.  Some read like a bumper sticker.  Back then more so than today, you could literally spend hours with a stack of Topps, and not just ingest, but retain every statistic of every player in the pile.  That's why for generations of kids, they became the scourge of grade school teachers across the nation and got locked up in the top draws of their desks, never to be returned again.  Where if teachers had just printed lesson plans on baseball cards, countless more American kids might have become geniuses today; not to mention stayed in possession of their long stolen treasure.

In those mid-70's days for kids my age, there was either going to the game with Pop, watching games on TV, and This Week In Baseball.  Before the days of the Internet, ESPN and cable TV, and this nine year old's willingness to hit the newsstand for some hard copy, after the game itself, reading the backs of baseball cards was still the number one way to learn about not only your favorite players, but the game's stars, and just about everyone else.

Derek Jeter's card is like that.  His is a throw-back card indeed and a template becoming increasingly more rare by the season.  The movement of players these days lends to the uniqueness of what Derek Jeter has done in Pinstripes.  For all his seventeen years in the Bigs have been spent with the Yankees. His career numbers fall uniformly into perfect columns chronicling his greatness.  And so the eye-catching sense of order which dominates the back of his card is right in line with the self-control he maintains as a person off the field, and a player on it.

The more I look at his numbers, the more impressed I am with them.  At some point in the 2012 season; health permitting; DEREK JETER should:

* Exceed 10,000 at-bats
* Close-in on 1,900 runs scored
* Surpass 3,200 hits
* Surpass 500 doubles
* Surpass 1,200 rbi
* Surpass 1,000 walks
* Possibly hit his 250th home run
* Possibly steal his 350th base

Then there is the matter of his career .313 batting average.

Last off-season, the Yankee icon and his General Manager publicly clashed over a new contract extension.  It was a classic confrontation between a Yankees legend and organizational pragmatism.  In the end, Jeter won the day with a new four year deal.

Many wondered at the time of the signing, as well as still wondering a year later, if in his twilight years, Derek Jeter will be able to fulfill this contract playing at the Hall of Fame level fans and Derek Jeter himself, are accustomed to.  Personally, that is more a matter for Yankee Fans, than for myself.  But for a Mets Fan like me, and at this stage of Jeter's career, there is only one issue regarding the future Hall of Fame shortstop that intrigues me.  Can he keep his career .300 batting average in tact?

Last season was year one of what everyone understands to be his last player contract with the Yankees.  Suffice to say he did not get off to a JETERian start.  Instead he struggled mightily early in the season, and was mired with a .260-some batting average at the plate.  He only played in 131 games which was the second lowest total of his full-time playing career.  And it marked the first time in eight seasons he didn't play in at least 150 games.

He did however, recapture his old form in time enough to finish the season with a deceivingly strong .297 batting average.  But it was still the second consecutive season in which he did not hit above the .300 mark.  Of course, nothing was going to detract attention away from Derek Jeter's chase for 3,000 hits.  And he got it in grand fashion; with a home run in new Yankee Stadium on a day he went 5 for 5 at the plate.  Yeah.., cause days like that are liable to happen to every guy named Mr. November, any given time of year.

No Highlander or Yankee player had ever amassed 3,000 hits in a Yankee uniform before.  On this 1st day of April 2012,  -  Babe Ruth, the Iron Horse, Joe D, The Mick, Yogi;  -  none of them have as many hits for the New York Yankees than does Derek Jeter.  He is the first to reach the golden plateau.

Derek Jeter is keenly aware of his place in Yankee history.  It's rather unavoidable in today's age of mass media.  He will also be thirty-eight years old this summer.  By the end of his first season in his final contract, he more than proved he wasn't washed up, yet.  But no, he didn't hit above .300 for only the fifth time in his full-time playing career.  Two of those sub-par seasons have come in the last two years, and the last before those came in the 2004 season.

Before passing away, Mickey Mantle expressed a few regrets he had along the way.  One of his biggest, was ruining his career .300 batting average by sticking around too long.  Right to the very end, The Mick swore he was a .300 hitter.  But the record books sadly reflect otherwise.

Derek Jeter entered the 2011 season with a lifetime .314 batting average.  When the Yankees walked off the field after their final regular season game last year, Derek Jeter's career batting average had dropped; albeit by a seemingly trivial percentage; to a .313 mark.  That's where he will pick up this season.

He has three years left on his current contract.  As it stands right now, the back of his baseball card, with a career .300 career batting average complimenting his 3,000 hits; among the other numbers highlighted above; read as one of the more glorious rectangular cardboard player summaries in Baseball History.  In Third-Grader speak, the back of his card looks like the one of those old guys from the nineteen thirty-whatevers.

I simply want to say this - the day - the game - or the at-bat, in which his career batting average lies exposed and winds up in jeopardy of falling below .300, should be the day - game - or moment he declares his intent to retire from the grand game of Baseball, post haste.

For now, the back of his baseball card still truly reads like the distinctively unique, one in a hundred, Hall of Fame type player's card should; or at least used to in a bygone century.  Derek Jeter's career numbers reach out like a hand rekindling a connection with the game's glorious past.  He can join the ranks of Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron, and Pete Rose, and Honus Wagner, and Ty Cobb, and George Brett, and Tony Gwynn; and a very short list of others, as the only players to retire with 3,000 hits, and a .300 career batting average.  Or, not.

Not all 28 players to achieve 3,000 hits in a career retired batting over the .300 mark, just as not all of them accomplished the feat with one club.  Considering the team and city for which Derek Jeter played; the same sacred plots where Ruth, Gehrig; Joltin' Joe; and other Bronx baseball deities made their names, makes Derek Jeter's case so infinitesimally majestic, if not historically significant.

Every so often, a player comes along and transcends the game.  In 1847, the New York Knickerbockers planted the seeds of Baseball in Manhattan, and are credited with playing what is regarded to be the first baseball match on the Elysian Fields, in Hoboken.  Since then, many amateur and professional teams, and mythical players have graced the city's various ball fields through the different eras.  Among the storied players that stood out over the last 167 years of NYC baseball; and even through the days of the old Brooklyn Dodgers, and the New York Giants, and even former Yankee greats themselves; Derek Jeter can, and will stand, like a titan among them, ...if, he keeps his .300 status in tact.

Why is that so?  Because Time makes it so.  Ten and fifteen years after his retirement, like in most instances, the legend of Derek Jeter will have multiplied many times over.  To the greats, and even near greats of the game, revisionist history is often very generous in that respect.  And when it comes to baseball, it's History the Fanatics and Bugs of the game want.

There are many ghosts of the game's past willing to tip a brown derby in appreciation of the modern day player they call Captain Clutch.  But Derek Jeter says not yet.  So, we'll just have to wait and see how he choses to go out.


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