Three Little Words

Jan Denise once said “It’s weird… you know the end of something great is coming, but you want to hold on, just for one more second… just so it can hurt a little more.”

It is a little strange how so many words mean absolutely nothing, but three little words can completely change the way a person views something. For some, the words “I love you” can completely change their lives. For others, simply saying the words “Maybe you’re right” can slash through the speaker’s heart like a hot knife through butter. There are a few more three word phrases that can completely shake a persons foundation, and this is my story about how three little words seemed to make the world screech to a halt, and how my perspective on one baseball player changed in a single heartbeat when I realized that even though that baseball player has been the source of an extreme amount of anguish and despair, that I cannot imagine Major League Baseball without him.

During last year’s American League Championship Series, I was watching Game Three with my dad, and thoroughly enjoying the 8-0 beat down the Texas Rangers were putting on the New York Yankees. Leading 8-0, the Rangers pulled Cliff Lee and put in Neftali Feliz to slam the door on the top of the Yankees’ lineup. Batting first was team captain Derek Jeter.

With two strikes on Jeter, Feliz blew a fast ball past a swinging Jeter for the first out. Strikeouts by closers are commonplace in baseball, so it wasn’t all that surprising. What was surprising, is the way Jeter struck out. He simply waved the bat with almost no hope of hitting the ball, and struck out for the third time in the game. Jeter is smart enough to know that a closer isn’t going to mess around, and that he is going to try and blow the fastball by him, so he couldn’t have been fooled. Something just wasn’t right with Derek Jeter.

That’s when my dad dropped the bombshell, simply saying, “Jeter looks old.”

That’s when it hit me too. Jeter is old, at least for a professional athlete. As a Red Sox fan, there isn’t a whole lot I can stand when it comes to the Yankees. As much as I love to hate Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, and the rest of the Bronx Bombers, Jeter is the one who transcends the game and commands universal respect. As happy as I was that the Rangers were two outs away from taking the series lead, I felt an inexplicable sadness wash over me. The words “Jeter looks old” were words I thought I would never hear. As I sat on my couch in silent disbelief for a few seconds that felt like an eternity, all I could manage to say was “Yeah, he does.”

There are many things to hate about the New York Yankees, but quite frankly, Jeter isn’t one of them. The payroll is outrageous, Hank Steinbrenner is in charge of a legacy that his father built, A-Rod is a complete tool, obnoxious and uneducated fans can only think of one comeback when a legitimate point is made against the Yankees, and the Yankees have ruined competition in baseball by simply buying up all the talent. I was raised to hate the Yankees and I thought Jim Rice was a supernatural being. I wasn’t even born when Bill Buckner blew game six of the 1986 World Series, or when Bucky Dent hit a three-run blast over the Green Monster at Fenway in 1978, but it still hurts to watch or even think about it. Aaron Boone jammed a dagger into my heart in 2003 with his 11th inning series winning home run. There are countless other reasons to hate the pinstripes, but even from a lifelong diehard Sox fan, Derek Jeter is just not a reason to hate the Yankees.

Amid all the steroid allegations against some of his current and former teammates, Jeter was never mentioned. While other superstar athletes got caught up in sex scandals, night club shootings, and dog fighting rings, Jeter was never mentioned. His agent, Casey Close, is never seen on ESPN telling the nation how his client deserves more money, like Scott Boras or Drew Rosenhaus. While other athletes are dating A-list celebrities who make a big deal out of it for publicity, Jeter flies under the radar for the most part. When parents are looking for a positive role model for their kids, Jeter’s name finally gets mentioned, and that is a huge part of the reason why it is so disheartening to see a young kid from Kalamazoo turn into just another athlete whose skill set is diminishing and whose days in professional sports are numbered.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a 36 year-old shortstop doesn’t have the same abilities as he did ten years ago, but for some reason, it does. Jeter has transcended baseball, much like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Willie Mays, and the mere fact that he is getting old is a hard pill to swallow.

Jeter’s MLB career started in 1996, when he won the AL Rookie of the Year award. That year, he posted a .314 batting average with 78 RBI’s. From there, he improved, and stepped into a leadership role that not many young men his age could handle. Jeter has had an outstanding career, and will definitely be headed to the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately for Jeter, his past numbers are just that, a thing of the past, and his stellar career is slowly coming to an end.

The odds of Jeter having a great year in 2011 are extremely unfavorable. Out of the 20 shortstops in the Hall of Fame, only Luke Appling, Pee Wee Reese, Cal Ripken, Jr., Honus Wagner, and Luis Aparicio have posted a .300 batting average at or after the age of 36. Even legends like Phil Rizzuto, Ozzie Smith, and Ernie Banks failed to hit .300 in the late stages of their careers, so why would Jeter be any different. Jeter has a few years left on his contract, and the numbers get worse for his odds of posting a great season ever again. Out of the five men who have hit .300, only Wagner and Appling have done it more than once. Appling accomplished the feat six times, while Wagner managed it only four times.

Jeter’s playoff numbers have also taken a hit. In 2010 against the Rangers, Jeter managed only a .231 batting average with seven strikeouts and only one RBI on a 6-26 performance at the plate. He didn’t look like the Jeter that baseball fans had become used to seeing.

The truth is, however, Jeter didn’t have a terrible year last year, batting .270 with ten home runs and 67 RBI’s. At his age, however, the grueling 162-game schedule takes a mental and physical toll unlike any he has experienced before. He is starting to get to the point where his body simply cannot recover like it used to when he was in his prime. All those at-bats, double plays, dives, and red-eye flights to the west coast are harder now than ever before.

Jeter is a great baseball player who has transcended the game of baseball. Maybe it was the thought that Jeter, like so many Boston players I have idolized over the years, seemed immortal, and when he begins to look human again, it is a tough pill to swallow. Or maybe it is because I, like many other college-aged baseball fans, have grown up watching Jeter play, and we never thought he would get older. Whatever the case may be, it is incredible how three little words like “Jeter looks old” can completely turn the universe upside-down for a few minutes.

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