1996 was the year I first started following baseball and the New York Yankees religiously. I felt a kinship with another Yankee rookie that year, a 22 year old shortstop named Derek Jeter.
Jeter wasn’t the expressive warrior that Paul O’Neil was, didn’t hit big home runs like Tino Martinez, and wasn’t a prototypical number three hitter like Bernie Williams. Somehow, over the next 16 seasons, Derek Jeter has become the most beloved Yankee since Mantle, the first Yankee captain since Munson, has surpassed Lou Gehrig for the most hits in Yankees history, is about to crack major league baseball’s top 10 all time hits list, has won a World Series MVP, All Star Game MVP, a Rookie of the Year, become the all time postseason hits leader, won five World Series, and been the heart of one of baseball’s all-time great dynasties.
It wasn’t just the dramatic plays. It wasn’t just the clutch performances that made Jeter such an invaluable and irreplaceable star. It was the aura of invincibility that surrounded him. The air of indifference he exuded when confronted by an army of reporters or the ever-present impending controversy. It was, above all else, the steadying, constant presence of the captain at the top of the Yankee lineup.
Jeter’s in his sixteenth season and, like any athlete that’s played for a duration of that length, he has been hurt plenty. Hit by pitches, slid into on double plays, leg issues, hand issues, a memorable dive into the stands that left him bloodied and battered, and a dislocated shoulder suffered at the hands of Ken Huckaby on opening day 2003. Derek Jeter, more often than not, was playing the next day. If not, the captain could be seen disgustedly walking off the field, in pain but also aggravated that he wouldn’t be on the field.
The other Yankees constant, the only other certainty in the Yankees universe (aside from Jeter’s name being at the top of the lineup) was that the game was over if the Yankees had the lead after 8 innings. The reason? Mariano.
Mariano Rivera came into the league in 1996 and set the Yankees record for strikeouts by a reliever, by throwing 26 straight scoreless and 15 consecutive hitless innings, being voted third in Cy Young voting, and prompted then-Twins-manager Tom Kelly to plead for Rivera to be sent to “a higher league somewhere”. Rivera quickly established himself as the greatest reliever in the game, then the greatest closer in the game, and over the course of his 15 seasons with the Yankees, cemented his legacy as the greatest closer in the history of baseball.
Since the start of their careers (as everyday players) in 1996, the Yankees lineup has seen a who’s who of baseball talent enter the clubhouse. Throughout all of the Mondesi’s, Abreu’s, Matsui’s, Giambi’s, Sheffield’s, Knoblauch’s, and A-rod’s, Rivera and Jeter remained the constant. Particularly in the postseason where Jeter’s supplanted Reggie Jackson as “Mr. October” in most Yankee fans’ mind and where Rivera cemented his legacy. That’s what makes this season so disconcerting.
The worst scene imaginable for Yankees fans became a reality on May 3rd when the man often considered the most indispensable Yankee, Mariano Rivera, crumpled in a heap on the warning track in Kauffman Stadium.
The man the Yankees relied on to insure their victory and slam the door on their opponents, their rock, was lying in the dirt, incapable of getting up. That was the first inclination that this might be the beginning of the end for the era that began when I was 8 years old.
The calamity from the other night was the nail in the coffin. The man who would fight any manager who tried to give him a day off, the Captain who’s started every playoff game the Yankees have had over the last 16 years, arguably the greatest Yankee of all time, went down.
It was akin to Joe Louis getting knocked through the ropes in Madison Square Garden (by Rocky Marciano). It was unthinkable; incomprehensible. A larger than life hero, a man who was more legend than man, that competed long enough to watch their legend falter.Derek Jeter, one of the most durable players of all time, was left a crumpled, broken man on the infield dirt.
For the first time in his career, and despite his plea to manager Joe Girardi not to carry him, the Captain needed to be carried off the field. For the first time, the captain is broken. If this sounds like hyperbole, understand the gravity of the situation. To Yankee fans, Superman just had his cape ripped off. In a year that saw former superstar Alex Rodriguez taken off the field (substitution) and both Rivera and Jeter carried off, one can’t help but think that the Yankees of my childhood are now an endangered species.