JOHN RIORDAN: Baseball needs new narrative to eclipse Jeter’s long goodbye

Derek Jeter

Now that Derek Jeter has left baseball, the rest of the sport can focus on the real business of October, the play-offs and the suddenly dramatic road to the World Series.

But even though the excitement served up by teams vying for a post-season berth in September was fairly decent, those other ball clubs across the nation were never going to be able to compete for column inches with the long farewell dedicated to the retiring 40-year-old New York Yankee — the most popular sports star this city has had in 50 years.

Inexplicably, just when you thought there couldn’t be any more Hollywood attached to his career, Jeter signed off with two exciting epilogues that had the city buzzing, even those with loyalties to the borough of Queens and undying love for the mess at the Mets. And even those fans of their bitter rivals in Beantown.

Jeter said he wanted to play his game in Boston rather than cut his career short three games early and bow out in the Bronx. It was out of respect for the people who had shown up the 151 other times he played up there.

The Red Sox fans had endured a long, tough season, crashing from last year’s glorious World Series achievement to last place in the American League East. And it was rounded off with an oddly enthusiastic send-off for the Yankees skipper.

Two decades of grudging acceptance of the existence of Jeter was palliated by a handful of notable Boston victories but, in the end, even the bitterest Red Sox fan was able to put that all aside on Sunday at Fenway Park and give a standing ovation to Jeter as he was ushered off the bases by his manager Joe Girardi.

He had sent one final scrappy single to third base which allowed him run safely to first. In among the cluster of celebrating Yankees on the away bench, Girardi made a throat-cutting gesture and Jeter nodded. He was called ashore to be replaced by a pinch runner and the ballpark erupted.

It was even more storybook the previous Thursday night when he inexplicably clinched a relatively meaningless game in the Bronx, the packed to capacity ballpark there for one reason only: to say a final goodbye.

It had rained heavily that morning so there was plenty hand wringing about the possibility that Jeter’s career would fizzle out in the worst way imaginable, a postponement or possible cancellation.

But, instead, a sugarcoated chain of events brought the main man back to the plate (he had already opened out a big lead with a hit): the Baltimore Orioles fought back to level the game 5-5 in the top of the ninth which meant the Yankees would be forced to bat again.

Wouldn’t you know it, Jeter was third up and wouldn’t you know it a Yankee got on base so Jeter had the chance to win it. He duly took that opportunity to send a runner home with a single and even the most cynical of Yankee haters had no choice but to enjoy an extraordinary moment.

However, as riveting as those final days proved, it’s still a bit of a relief to consign Jeter and the Yankees to last month’s news.

The play-offs began on the eve of October — last night’s make-or-break American League wild card clash in Kansas City between the Royals and the Oakland A’s was a showdown of everyone’s favourite underdogs.

The National League’s wild card game takes place this evening with the San Francisco Giants visiting another cult classic club, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

And then we really get rolling tomorrow night with the big divisional winners lying in wait. It’s a lottery from here on in. There is more than a little St Louis Cardinals ennui infecting the game — their consistent ability to hit the heights almost Kilkenny-esque in the modern era.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, meanwhile, are something of a throwback to the hair-raising 1980s — both in style and temperament. The other National League contenders are the Washington Nationals, representing a city that hasn’t seen a World Series victory since 1924.

Meanwhile in the American League, the Detroit Tigers will probably underwhelm again and the World Series drought being suffered by the Baltimore Orioles (last win in 1983) is two years worse than that of Kansas City.

The sport’s current standout player, Mike Trout, represents the other major favourite, the Los Angeles Angels. Baseball desperately needs the 23-year-old to lift that famous trophy at the end of the month. And what happens between now and then needs to somehow surpass Jeter’s last stand so baseball can finally emerge from the shadow of the Yankees.

 johnwriordan@gmail.com 

Twitter: JohnWRiordan


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