As I lazily sat on my couch watching SportsCentre that morning, I was barely paying attention, just idly letting the plethora of baseball highlights cross my line of sight- but then that number popped up: 3,000. And with that number came with an internationally recognized face: Derek Sanderson Jeter, the last Great American Ballplayer. Over the last decade, baseball has been knocked off its perch atop American sport hierarchy by football (even a lockout won’t slow them down; what happened in 1994 to baseball will not happen to football), and basketball, in its new golden age, is gnawing at baseball’s heels. Baseball players, full of steroid scandals, have lost the aura they had only 15 years ago. More people have jerseys of Marion Barber than Manny Ramirez. The decline is also showing itself at an amateur and youth level. Fewer Americans are playing baseball each year, especially African-Americans. It seems that baseball has in some ways lost its luster, especially on an individual player basis. Baseball has no divisive superstar like Lebron, no apotheosized genius like Manning, no singular image like Tiger.
But as Jeter’s face entered the television, all of that is easily forgotten. At some point this month he will reach 3,000 hits, a mark reached by only 27 others out of thousands of hitters. When he reaches that mark, sports fans should appreciate that he will likely be the last positive iconic sports figure in baseball. Yes, Lincecum, Howard, and Mauer are all iconic to baseball fans, but not to sports fans. At almost 37 years old, Jeter is still number one among players in jersey sales and has been the most marketable player in baseball over the last decade. In an age where winning is everything, Jeter is the definition of a winner. It seems like he shows up in every clutch situation (A highlight package featuring Jeter driving in the going ahead run in the last few innings or getting on base to start a rally would last longer than a Lord of the Rings movie) and never cracks under the scrutiny of the intense New York sports media. In an age where 24 hour sports networks blow up every inch of every scandal, Jeter is untainted. Derek Jeter, the son of a mixed race couple from blue collar Kalamazoo, Michigan who spent his summers in New Jersey engenders all the qualities fans look for in their sports heroes. His loyalty to the Yankees over the past sixteen years despite all the personnel mistakes they have made (Kevin Brown, Carl Pavano, Randy Johnson, Jose Contreras and that’s only the starting pitchers) is unfortunately rare in modern pro sports (Yep, Lebron we’re talking to you). He has earned over $200 million in salary yet never takes a day off. He has played over 92% of his teams’ games in all but one season (he separated his shoulder in ’03). He is candidly honest with the media, but never says anything stupid.
Okay that was enough praise a Blue Jays fan can give a Yankee (when writing about Jeter’s injury I sent a mental thank-you to Ken Huckaby). But in all seriousness Jeter has had a career that makes sports fans proud to follow. He had opportunities to demand a trade after the downfall of the early 2000’s dynasty as Kobe did on the post-Shaq Lakers. He could have demanded that the Yankees nix the A-Rod trade. It would have been understandable, as the team’s shortstop and face of the franchise why would you want the team to trade for the best shortstop/player in the league? But instead Jeter, classy as always, tried to welcome in the guy with the lowest talent-to-self-esteem ratio in the league. In a sports world of me-first ego fueled attitudes, Jeter is consistently in team mode. So when he hits that big number, whether it’s an infield single or a line drive to the gap, remember you are witnessing the culmination of a baseball player who has followed in the footsteps of many great sports personas, but sadly will probably have no other follow him.