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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.

Settling the Scores: Friday’s results

SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 30: Norichika Aoki #8 of the Seattle Mariners is congratulated by teammates in the dugout after hitting a solo home run off of starting pitcher Raul Alcantara #50 of the Oakland Athletics during the second inning of a game against the Oakland Athletics at Safeco Field on September 30, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
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Raul Alcantara was in the business of distributing home runs on Friday night.

Robinson Cano caught the tail end of a 94.1 m.p.h. fastball in the first inning, driving it to center field to put the Mariners on the board. In the second, Norichika Aoka found his fourth home run of the year on a similarly-placed heater. The Mariners then targeted Alcantara’s off-speed stuff, picking on the right-hander’s changeup and slider to get two more home runs in the third: the first, another dead-center blast by Cano, and the last, a bomb by Nelson Cruz that popped off the center field wall and survived an umpire review.

Taijuan Walker, who enjoyed the spike in run support from his 3.6 average, was not immune to the home run bug either, giving up the first and only run of the night on Ryon Healy’s 102-m.p.h. home run in the sixth inning.

While Walker excelled at run prevention, he also came one walk shy of hitting a career-high mark, with five walks spread over six innings. Seattle’s bullpen stepped in for three perfect innings to close out the game and, despite six perfect frames from Oakland relievers Zach Neal and Daniel Coulombe, quashed the A’s hopes of closing a four-run gap.

The Mariners’ win on Friday puts them one game back of the wild card; if they take the rest of the series and the Tigers and Blue Jays lose one of their remaining weekend games, the Mariners will tie for the remaining wild card spot. With Hisashi Iwakuma and Felix Hernandez on the hill this weekend, winning shouldn’t be an issue. Getting the Blue Jays to collapse against the Red Sox (and, to a lesser extent, the Tigers against the Braves) is another story.

Here are the rest of the box scores from Friday’s games. Keep an eye out for the first modest bat flip of Jose Bautista‘s career, Madison Bumgarner‘s eighth RBI of the year, and the Orioles’ three-homer inning.

Orioles 8, Yankees 1

Marlins 7, Nationals 4

Mets 5, Phillies 1

Cubs 7, Reds 3

Red Sox 5, Blue Jays 3

Tigers 6, Braves 2

Rangers 3, Rays 1

Rockies 4, Brewers 1

White Sox 7, Twins 3

Indians 7, Royals 2

Cardinals 7, Pirates 0

Diamondbacks 5, Padres 3

Angels 7, Astros 1

Mariners 5, Athletics 1

Giants 9, Dodgers 3

Video: Holliday’s home run a fitting goodbye for Cardinals

ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 30: Matt Holliday #7 of the St. Louis Cardinals hits a solo home run against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the seventh inning at Busch Stadium on September 30, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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If tonight was his last night in a Cardinals uniform, Matt Holliday made the most of it.

After sitting out most of the second half with a fractured thumb, the 36-year-old was activated from the disabled list on Friday and slotted in as a pinch-hitter during the seventh inning of the Cardinals’ 7-0 shutout. What happened next could hardly have elicited more sentiment had it been scripted:

The solo shot was Holliday’s first home run as a pinch-hitter, and his first home run of any kind since August 9. The triumphant moment might have been the last of its kind in St. Louis, as it was reported earlier today that the Cardinals do not plan to exercise Holliday’s option in 2017.

Prior to the game, the left fielder released a statement in which he expressed his gratitude for the past eight seasons with the Cardinals’ organization:

I would like to thank Mr. Dewitt, Mo and the entire ownership group for the opportunity to play for the St. Louis Cardinals.

I am proud of what we have accomplished on and off the field during the past seven years. I have also been humbled by the incredible support and participation in our Homers for Health program.

It has been an honor to play in front of such great fans and for such a historic organization. I can honestly say it has been a dream come true.

While I’m disappointed this could be it here in St. Louis, I understand that it might be time to move on.

I’d like to express my love and admiration for Tony, Mike and all of the coaches and staff that I have had the pleasure to do life with these past seven-plus years.

The most emotional part of this is my teammates and the relationships I’ve built with some of these guys over the years. Particularly, Adam and Yadi, to be considered part of the core with two of the finest human beings I’ve ever known.

Finally, I’m eternally thankful for the Lord bringing me to the city of St. Louis in August of 2008. Lots of cool stuff has happened since then. On behalf of my wife Leslee and our children Jackson, Ethan, Gracyn and Reed: Thank you!