Derek Jeter’s greatest feat? Staying irrepressibly likeable as a Yankee (and baseball) icon

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SOCHI – When Derek Jeter made his major league debut in 1995, there was no Facebook. There was nothing that suggested there would ever be a Facebook. The internet was a dial-up puzzle. Founder Mark Zuckerburg was an 11-year-old son of a dentist and psychiatrist, and he was just beginning to write programs in BASIC.

Heck, DVDs had not been invented.

In other words, Derek Jeter began playing baseball in a very different America, a very different world, when newspapers told the story of baseball, when no words crawled along the bottom of television screens, when being social meant talking to people. There are countless words and letters and phrases – iPhone, blog, tweet, smh, Droid, OPS (as statistic), Yahoo! (as noun), the cream, high-def TV, lol, iPad, replacement player, Bieber, Google (as verb), Deadspin, Moneyball – that would have sounded like absolute gibberish to Jeter at the beginning.

And yet, those are some of the words that defined his time. And him.

“I know they say when you dream you eventually wake up,” Jeter wrote Wednesday on his Facebook page as he announced his 2014 retirement. “Well for some reason I’ve never had to wake up.”

* * *

Think of the magic trick Derek Jeter pulled off. He was, for most of his life, the most visible athlete in New York City. Kim Basinger called him a hunk. He was on the cover of GQ and eligible and obscenely rich. Reggie Jackson said he’d trade his own past for Jeter’s future. He was given a $189 million contract when he was 26 years old, and he was named the Yankees team captain just two years later.

When something awesome in baseball happened, he was often in the frame. The dive. The flip. The November homer. Every step he made was a potential backpage for the New York tabloids, every word he said might make Twitter explode. He was exalted to the heavens by his fans, detested to his core by opposing fans. He was the most visible man in a game that had such a deep steroid problem that it would get dragged before Congress. He had more hosannas thrown his way than any player of his time, and he never won an MVP award though he probably deserved a couple.

And all the while, he stayed utterly (and, to some, maddeningly) admirable.

Look at some of the greatest players of his time. Alex Rodriguez: Disgraced. Barry Bonds: Disgraced. Mark McGwire: Disgraced. Manny Ramirez: Disgraced. Albert Pujols: Floundering. Ken Griffey: Tumbled in late career. Jeff Bagwell: Can’t get elected to the Hall of Fame. Mike Piazza: Can’t get elected to the Hall of Fame.

And through all of it, Jeter soared – not only as a player but also as a modern day icon. Has any player since Cal Ripken or Hank Aaron or Joe DiMaggio been so respected simply for being himself?

When Alex Rodriguez caused that stir by walking across Dallas Braden’s pitching mound, what did Braden do? He said A-Rod should learn some respect from Derek Jeter.

When Hanley Ramirez got in to trouble for loafing after a ball, what did his manager Fredi Gonzalez say? That he wished all talented players were like Derek Jeter, but such dreams are just not realistic.

“You know, I really didn’t get Derek Jeter,” a player named Aaron Guiel told me a few years ago. “I mean, sure, you see him across the way, you know he’s a great player, great leader, all that stuff.  And then I came to play for the Yankees, and I saw it firsthand. He’s different from anybody else. The guy does so many things to help the team that you can’t even count them all.”

Guiel  said that the first day he came to the Yankees, Jeter came over, introduced himself and talked about how happy he was that Guiel was on the team. But more, he talked about how excited he was because he knew Guiel would help the team. “He knew a lot about me,” Guiel said, with some wonder in his voice.

Jeter answered a million questions from reporters – at least half of them inane, all of them repeats – and he answered them politely. Blandly but politely. He deflected negativity with the same ease with which he flicked singles to right field. He uttered clichés with energy, giving the words a little more power. The Yankees clubhouse had more multi-millionaires (and accompanying giant egos) than any in baseball, but  it never devolved into a poisonous place like so many others. The reason was Jeter. A Derek Jeter team, by definition, would be professional.

And his professionalism towered over everything.  When Alex Rodriguez took some shots at him in a magazine, it could have become a thing. It didn’t. When Rodriguez came to the Yankees and only one could play shortstop, it could have become a thing. It didn’t. When Jeter’s love life became public – with Mariah Carey or Miss Universe or Minka Kelly – it could have become a thing. It didn’t. When George Steinbrenner took a shot at Jeter for staying out too late one night during the season, it could have become a thing. It didn’t. When it seemed like everyone in baseball was being suspected of steroid use, any rumor could have become a thing. It didn’t.

His defense – despite him winning five Gold Gloves – was savaged on the Internet. That too could have become a thing. It didn’t.

And it didn’t because of Jeter’s constancy — play hard every day, run the bases hard every day, be polite every day, speak positively every day. He was the waves beating against the shore. He hit .300 every year. He scored 100 runs every year. He played 150 games every year. He led a playoff team every year. He became Twitter proof, statistic-proof,  scandal proof. In this new social, bloggy, TMZ, 24-hour world, Derek Jeter’s magic trick was not getting 3,316 or scoring 1,876 runs or being shortstop for five World Series champions.

It was staying irrepressibly likeable.

* * *

So now, Derek Jeter has announced on Facebook that he will play just one more year. Of course he will be celebrated in every city. Millions of words about his brilliant career will spill out. A “Derek Jeter is overrated” backlash will undoubtedly gain momentum as the year goes on too. Then a backlash to the backlash.

But, in the middle of it all, in his own quiet way, Derek Jeter will be doing one of the hardest things a great athlete has to do. He will wind down. The saying goes that great men die twice – once as great and again as men. And while there will be this big, public celebration for the most significant baseball player of our time, there will also be a quiet realization within him that the end is near.

Jeter won’t let us in on that. He never did let people in too close. That, I suspect, was part of his genius. When he was a boy, his father Charles – an Army man – would have young Derek sign a contract of expectations. There was a standard to live by.  He came into an analog baseball world and he left with a letter to his fans on Facebook. He never fell for the praise or gave in to the criticism. The standard never changed. And, all the while, he kept the important stuff for himself.

And That Happened: Saturday’s Scores and Highlights

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Saturday’s slate featured all the components of great (read: entertaining) baseball, from Aaron Judge‘s double-deck moonshot and Jacob May‘s first major league hit to the worst squeeze bunt attempt of Chase Anderson‘s career. Here are the rest of the day’s scores and highlights:

Cubs 12, Reds 8: The Cubs didn’t have to mount another rally to clinch their tenth win of the season. Jake Arrieta led the charge through six innings, allowing five runs, striking out eight batters and putting up his fourth career triple on a changeup from Lisalverto Bonilla:

The rest of the Cubs feasted on home runs, from Anthony Rizzo’s two-run blast in the first inning to Jason Hayward’s three-run shot and Wilson Contreras’ first major league grand slam. The Reds got in a few knocks of their own, with Eugenio Suarez putting up a solo homer in the first and Joey Votto coming just a triple shy of the cyclebut 12 runs ended up being more than enough to see the Cubs through to another win.

Tigers 5, Twins 4: A benches-clearing confrontation, two ejections and a disastrous hit by pitch isn’t exactly what the doctor ordered, but at the end of the day, the Tigers stood atop a 5-4 win for their ninth victory of the season. A better reward? Knowing that while JaCoby Jones needed nine stitches in his lip after taking a 90 m.p.h. fastball to the face, he isn’t expected to miss significant time on the disabled list this year.

Athletics 4, Mariners 3: First place in the AL West may be an unattainable goal for the Athletics right now, but it sure looks like they’re starting to gel. Adam Rosales and Jed Lowrie wasted no time getting on the board in the first inning with a pair of home runs, and Khris Davis added an RBI groundout in the third to give the A’s a much-needed edge. The Mariners, on the other hand, will need to work fast to solve their problems on the road, since they still have another seven games to play before they return to Seattle on May 2.

Nationals 3, Mets 1: Every start Gio Gonzalez has made in 2017 has looked near-flawless, but Saturday showcased some of his best work. The Nationals’ left-hander carried a no-hitter through five frames, retiring 15 of 18 batters, striking out three and issuing three walks before Juan Lagares broke up the no-no in the sixth. Two at-bats later, Asdrubal Cabrera singled home the Mets’ first run of the night, but Gonzalez settled down to strike out the side and the Nats’ bullpen took care of the rest, cementing the lefty’s second win of the year.

Yankees 11, Pirates 5: In the words of the inimitable George Orwell: All home runs are equal, but some home runs are more equal than others. Specifically, this home run — a ninth-inning, 2-2 fastball obliterated 457 feet into the second deck of PNC Park — was created to stand above the rest.

Rays 6, Astros 3: Fun fact: George Springer currently leads all active MLB players with 205 consecutive major league appearances. Not-so-fun fact: That streak likely came to an end on Saturday, when Springer exited in the fifth inning with left hamstring discomfort. Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch told reporters that the outfielder is expected to sit out of Sunday’s finale against the Rays.

Phillies 4, Braves 3 (10 innings): The dramatic finish to Saturday’s 10-inning marathon was less the product of individual heroics and more of a group effort, due in part to some defensive miscues that perfectly positioned the Phillies for a walk-off win. Third baseman Maikel Franco had the honor of driving in the winning run with a two-run, bases-loaded single, his first game-winning knock since August 3, 2016.

Orioles 4, Red Sox 2: No retaliatory measures were taken against the Orioles on Saturday after Dustin Pedroia was injured on a takeout slide during Friday’s 2-0 loss, but Boston manager John Farrell is still pretty upset about the whole ordeal. Baltimore prevailed a second time, turning in a four-run fourth inning on back-to-back home runs from Trey Mancini and Jonathan Schoop and an RBI single from Adam Jones.

Indians 7, White Sox 0: Jacob May probably slept a lot easier on Saturday night after recording his first major league hit during the White Sox’ 7-0 loss. The 25-year-old center fielder subbed in for an injured Melky Cabrera in the seventh inning and promptly singled off of the Indians’ Carlos Carrasco, ending his streak at 26 hitless at-bats.

The crowd gave the rookie a standing ovation for his feat, though the team would go on to lose 7-0 after Carrasco and Zach McAllister joined forces for the club’s second consecutive shutout of the year.

Cardinals 4, Brewers 1: Bunts are tricky animals, nearly impossible to wrangle unless you get the timing and circumstances just right. Neither the timing nor the circumstances were aligned for Brewers’ right-hander Chase Anderson, who attempted a squeeze bunt in the fifth inning of Saturday’s 4-1 loss and watched the play unravel in the worst way:

Rangers 2, Royals 1: Heading into Saturday’s game, the Royals’ rotation held a combined 2.36 ERA, good for lowest in the league. Their 2-1 loss to the Rangers did little to move the needle there, though their offense still leaves much to be desired. Mike Moustakas drove in the Royals’ only run of the night, making Saturday’s loss the sixth consecutive game in which they’ve mustered two or fewer runs.

Diamondbacks 11, Dodgers 5: Dodgers’ skipper Dave Roberts is weighing his rotation options, which should come as little surprise after Kenta Maeda was shelled in Saturday’s loss. The right-hander, who self-diagnosed his problem as being more “results-oriented” than “process-oriented,” gave up nine hits, five runs and four homers in five innings against the Diamondbacks. It was a significant boost for the D-backs, whose double-digit win helped tighten their grip on the NL West with a 12-7 record, just half a game shy of tying the Rockies for the division lead.

Rockies 12, Giants 3: Speaking of NL West competitors, it’ll take some effort to unseat the Rockies after they bulldozed the Giants in a 12-run finish on Saturday. It wasn’t an entirely fair match, however, as the Giants have lost several players to injuries over the past week and were forced to remove outfielder Denard Span in the second inning after he sprained his right shoulder on a catch at the wall.

Marlins 6, Padres 3 (11 innings): Giancarlo Stanton‘s home runs bookended the Marlins’ first extra-inning victory of the year, but the win wasn’t all about flashy home runs and game-winning knocks. Martin Prado snared a would-be walk-off hit in the 10th inning, preserving the tie and giving Stanton — and the rest of the Marlins — another chance for redemption in the 11th.

Angels 5, Blue Jays 4: There have been quite a few grand slams circulating in the majors this weekend, and the most recent one belongs to Andrelton Simmons. Simmons’ slam off of Casey Lawrence in the third inning proved the deciding factor in the Angels’ 5-4 win, providing Anaheim with just enough of a buffer as Toronto attempted a comeback in the ninth.

It’s a nice break for the Angels, who snapped a three-game losing streak and currently sit fourth in the AL West. The same can’t be said for the Blue Jays, whose 4-13 record is the worst across both leagues.

Angels move Garrett Richards to 60-day disabled list

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Angels’ right-hander Garrett Richards has been moved to the 60-day disabled list, according to a team announcement on Saturday. Richards was originally placed on the 10-day disabled list in early April after sustaining a right biceps cramp during his first start of the season. No timetable has been given for his return to the mound, though Pedro Moura of the Los Angeles Times speculates that his return date could be pushed back to June.

While the Angels report that Richards is making some progress in his recovery, he’s still experiencing some “irritation of the cutaneous nerve,” which could be preventing him from working back up to full strength. The veteran righty already missed 154 days of the 2016 season after suffering a UCL injury, and opted for biometrics surgery to repair the ligament rather than undergoing a more intensive Tommy John procedure.

This is Richards’ seventh season with the Angels. He last pitched a full, healthy season in 2015, delivering a 3.65 ERA, 3.3 BB/9 and 7.6 SO/9 over 207 1/3 innings. He’s currently one of eight Angels pitchers serving time on the disabled list, including left-hander Andrew Heaney and right-handers Cam Bedrosian, Andrew Bailey, Vicente Campos, Huston Street, Mike Morin and Nick Tropeano.