After a year-long farewell tour, capped by an over-the-top final appearence in New York Thursday, the backlash to the Derek Jeter tribute threatens to overtake the celebration itself. It’s too much, too extravagent for a player whose career numbers are more Biggio more than DiMaggio. (Keith Olbermann sums up this sentiment in blistering fashion here.)
I get that. The Yankees aren’t good at restraint, events in New York tend to get magnified and the whole thing has gotten sort of tacky. If I wasn’t a Yankees fan, I’m sure I would be annoyed.
But I am a Yankees fan. And here’s why I’m not sick of it.
While I vaguely remember the glory years of the late 1970s (and the first game I went to featured a Thurmon Munson home run), I date my fandom from the 1986 season. The Yankees were OK, but that was the year the Mets of Gooden, Strawberry and Carter took over New York. That team was brash and obnoxious, its fans even more so, and the contrarian in me decided to make the Yankees my team.
My timing was not good. The Yankees were at the start of a steep decline. This was the era of Hurricane George, of Howard Spira, of Dallas Green. In these years, the Yankees traded Jay Buhner (career home runs: 310, 3 with the Yankees) for Ken Phelps (career home runs 123, 17 with the Yanks). The once-great Don Mattingly was hobbled with a bad back. Our big free agent signings were Jack Clark and Danny Tartabull. We tried to get excited about rookies like Kevin Maas.
These were the Yankees’ starting shortstops and their batting averages from 1986 to 1995, the year before Jeter became the full time starter:
1986: Bob Meacham .224
1987: Wayne Tolleson .221
1988: Rafael Santana .240
1989: Alvaro Espinoza .282
1990: Espinoza .224
1991: Espinoza .256
1992: Andy Stankwiecz .268
1993: Spike Owen .234
1994 Mike Gallego .289
1995: Tony Fernandez .245
(I know BA is an old-fashioned stat but trust me, their WAR wasn’t very impressive, either. Fernandez was a very good player at the end of his career. Tolleson and Gallego were capable utility infielders unfairly elevated to starting positions. The rest sucked).
The team’s performance was similarly dismal. They had four straight losing seasons from 1989-1993 (for the first time since 1912-15) and lost a record 95 games in 1990. Even worse, the front office seemed to have no clue about what to do. They signed washed-up free agents, traded away prospects and ran through a string of miserable managers. It was horrible to watch.
And these were the Yankees. When I signed up, I thought I was getting the team of Ruth and Gehrig, Ford and Mantle. A team with rich history, with a tradition of winning and winning a lot. The team I got was a sad shell of that, trading on nostalgia and faded glory, bumbling on the field and off.
But gradually, things began to change. George Steinbrenner was banned from the team and when he was reinstated, he stopped meddling. Front office decisions improved. Young talent was identified and groomed. Roberto Kelly was traded for Paul O’Neil. Buck Showalter took over as manager and raised expectations. And into this new, hopeful environment came Derek Jeter.
Jeter wasn’t responsbile for this transformation, but he represented it more than any other player. He was young, talented and more than anything, professional. He acted like a winner, and he played the way we expect of Yankees. He led them to four championships in five years (and tacked on a fifth a decade later). He was the heir to Mantle, Munson and Mattingly. He was, after the Steve Balbonis and Mel Halls, a Yankee that Yankee fans could be proud of.
In the long sweep of Yankees history, the four years of darkness from 1989-1993 is a footnote, the momentary decline that set the stage for the great years that followed. For me, though, they were long and painful. Jeter may not be the greatest Yankee of all time. But he was the right Yankee at the right time. And for that I am grateful.