My earliest memories of professional baseball originated after the dawn of baseball’s Steroid Era. Most of the biggest stars in the game during my formative years were either near the tail-end of their careers or have been stained — some deserved, some undeserved — by performance-enhancing drugs. But for me and many more of my generation, one hitter stands out from the crowd for having played the game “the right way”: Derek Jeter.
That’s not exactly an original thought, but that fact only supports Jeter’s appeal being almost universal among baseball fans.
Many of the era’s most popular players achieved stardom based on individual achievements. There’s Sammy Sosa, who crushed 20 dingers in June 1998, and Mark McGwire, who that same year became the first man to surpass Roger Maris’ single-season home run record. And don’t forget about Barry Bonds, who swatted more home runs than any major leaguer ever, or Alex Rodriguez, who many believed would surpass Bonds’ mark.
It goes without saying what all these players have in common, but here it is anyway: Their numbers are tainted by the specter of steroids.
But not all the era’s stars were suspected — or known — to be on the juice. Players such as Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas are widely believed to be “clean.” But what they never did was contribute to a team’s World Series victory. (At 37, Thomas won in 2005 with the White Sox, but missed the postseason.)
That’s what makes Jeter’s 20-year contribution to the game so special. He’s a vintage baseball star who didn’t need to put up prodigious power numbers to captivate fans. All Jeter had to do was put on his uniform and play hard for 27 outs to help his team get the ‘W’, and the people loved him for it.
That, and come through with a clutch play here and there to remind us how much he wanted his Yankees to win.
His will to win had to make yesterday’s elimination from the postseason a bitter pill to swallow. Without a doubt, no one wearing pinstripes wanted to cap Jeter’s final season with a championship. His end isn’t representative of his body of work. But whose is? Ballplayers don’t hit .310 and win an MVP and a World Series the year they call it a career.
We remember them at their best, anyway. We remember when Jeter sprinted and flipped the ball to Jorge Posada against the A’s. We remember his home run off Byung-Hyun Kim as Major League Baseball entered November for the first time ever. We remember every one of Jeter’s five World Series championships.
And really, those are the memories worth having.
Scott Fontana, amNewYork’s sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.