The Death of the Company Man

On February 12th Derek Jeter announced that, effective at the end of this season, he will retire from Major League Baseball and end his historic career.

Derek Jeter, the New York Yankees captain and the franchise’s face for the last 20 years, will leave a much bigger hole to fill than just a position between second and third. His career accolades span a list longer than an NBA player’s wingspan and a Jared Leto acceptance speech, and it is highlighted by five gold gloves, thirteen All-Star selections and the 1996 AL Rookie of the Year award.

Jeter is a blue-collar guy from Kalamazoo, Michigan who worked at the game and played because he loved it so. He is generous with his wealth and, unlike many pretentious and spoiled athletes, gives back to his community. He’s played the game the right way for his entire career. He’s a Roberto Clemente Award winner and one of two guys (the other being Greg Maddux) that were great during their time that you can say with absolute certainty never used steroids.

I root for the Boston Red Sox, so in my perspective Derek Jeter plays for “The Evil Empire.” He’s the Darth Vader of the pricey, pretentious fully-finished Death Star called “New Yankee Stadium.” In short, despise the Bronx Bombers. However, I don’t let that get in the way as I respect Derek Jeter as a baseball fan.  I just wish he wouldn’t have played quite so well against the Sox.

Derek Jeter is a great player and a greater person for MLB’s marquee franchise. The man is a great both on the field and off – the fact that he excelled in both categories (exacerbated by the era he played in) is astounding. After this season, all this present tense will shift backward; he was a great player for MLB’s marquee franchise.

That’s just the point with Jeter. He played with the New York Yankees his entire career. They drafted him, he anchored one of the toughest positions in the game for two decades, and he will retire there.  Derek Jeter is a dying breed. Not in the sense that a gamer of a Shortstop can will himself to greatness, but the fact that he played in the Big Apple all 20 years and spent his career with one team is rare.

Players you identify now as synonymous with a team – David Ortiz, Red Sox, for example – haven’t been with the team their whole careers. (Ortiz played two years for the Minnesota Twins.)

Players like that are dropping like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar chances. In 2007, when Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr. went to Cooperstown, many thought those two would be the last of an era where players were drafted, satisfied with whatever money the team offered, and made everyone around them better. You can list these franchise guys on one hand now: Jeff Bagwell, Chipper Jones, Mariano Rivera, and Jeter. And the last of them retires this season.

Where have they gone?

Albert Pujols, Mr. Cardinal on par with Stan Musial for a time, jumped for the almighty dollar to sign with the Angels in Los Angeles. Robinson Cano, who was the other half of a legendary middle infield for the Yankees for nine seasons, lost in a contest of “Chicken” with New York and fled across the country to sign with Seattle. Ichiro Suzuki was a different circumstance where he wanted a chance at a ring, but still, seeing him reverse-Robinson by going from the Mariners to the Yankees was weird for any baseball fan.

To witness any of those above guys change teams is odd. It’s like baseball karma is skewed, unbalanced and that there has been an injustice done to a team. Hell hath known no fury like a fan-base spurned – particularly if that city is Cleveland and you grew up there only to backstab the basketball culture there.

But for baseball, the game rifest with money and luxury for mistakes and overpayment, why isn’t their more commitment?

The absence of loyalty corresponds with the lack of a salary cap. No cap enables a player to go out and seek the highest deal possible and sometimes the hometown team just cannot deliver what a struggling team is willing to offer to a Superstar to come play for them (read: Seattle and Cano) because the struggling team will pay a desperately outrageous amount to get them. The quandary is encapsulated perfectly by the teachings of one philosopher I once read. He pointed out – I believe back in Ancient Greece – “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.”

The further reason it doesn’t make sense is parity. Sure, there’s always going to be a couple teams like the Houston Astros who have no shot at winning a title, but the parity in MLB is much higher than its brethren like the NBA or NFL. Basketball-wise, LeBron James arguably had to jump to somewhere other than the unbelievably mismanaged Cleveland Cavaliers to win a championship, but it’s not like that in MLB. Once a team makes the postseason, quite literally anything can happen whereas in the NBA, there are really four competitors who can win. That way for baseball, players don’t have to jump teams or team up to have a shot at winning the title. Albert Pujols went to the Angels because, he said, it gave him a better chance at the World Series. (The Cardinals had just been to the World Series with him, mre months prior to his departure.) The Cardinals have been to a pair of World Series since he left. Pujols? None.

But Derek Jeter isn’t like Albert Pujols, or anyone else in this time for that matter. Jeter, by these standards, is an anomaly. So many of the greats – Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, and Stan Musial – have played for only one organization and, while that doesn’t it make them great, it allows a unification of a fan-base for them. It may be sentimental, but I think it’s better that way.

And that’s the way Jeter did it. Bagwell retired from the game, followed quickly by guys like Chipper and Mariano. When Derek Jeter retires officially on the last Yankee game of this season, it’s much bigger than the New York Yankees losing their Shortstop: it is the end of an era, the final march of a culture, and the death of the company man.

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