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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.

The Padres non-tendered RHP Tyson Ross

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 04:  Tyson Ross #38 of the San Diego Padres walks off the field as he's taken out of the game in the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on opening day at PETCO Park on April 4, 2016 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
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Per a report by MLB.com’s AJ Cassavell, the Padres non-tendered right-handed starter Tyson Ross on Friday, cutting loose their top ace after three seasons with the club.

Ross, 29, was sidelined for the bulk of the season with inflammation in his right shoulder and underwent thoracic outlet surgery in October. His injuries limited him to only 5 1/3 innings in 2016, during which he gave up seven runs and struck out five in a 15-0 blowout against the Dodgers.

Prior to his lengthy stint on the disabled list, the right-hander earned 9.5 fWAR and pitched to a 3.07 ERA and 9.2 K/9 rate in three full seasons with the Padres. He avoided arbitration with a one-year, $9.625 million deal prior to the 2016 season after leading the league with 33 starts and delivering a 3.26 ERA and career-best 4.4 WARP over 196 innings in 2015.

The Padres appear open to bringing Ross back to San Diego, reported Cassavell, albeit not at such a steep cost. Cassavell quoted Padres’ GM A.J. Preller, who was reportedly in trade talks involving Ross but unable to strike a deal, likely due to the right-hander’s recent health issues. Preller denied that those same health issues factored into the club’s decision to non-tender their ace.

With the move, Ross became one of 35 major leaguers to enter free agency on Friday.

Angels’ Pujols has foot surgery, could be sidelined 4 months

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Los Angeles Angels slugger Albert Pujols had surgery on his right foot Friday, possibly sidelining him past opening day.

Angels general manager Billy Eppler said Pujols had the procedure Friday in North Carolina to release his plantar fascia, the ligament connecting the heel to the toes. The three-time NL MVP was bothered by plantar fasciitis repeatedly during the season, but played through the pain in arguably the strongest year of his half-decade with the Angels.

Eppler said the surgery typically prevents players from participating in baseball activities for three months, along with another month before they’re ready to resume playing in games. Opening day for Los Angeles is April 3, and the Angels hope Pujols can be ready.

“He’s at that point in his career where he’s keenly aware of what’s happening with his body,” Eppler said in a phone interview. “I don’t put the timetable on Albert like you would with your younger players. We’ll just see in Albert’s case, as he progresses, what his timetable is.”

Pujols, who turns 37 next month, batted .268 last year with 31 homers and 119 RBIs, the fourth-most in the majors – although his .780 OPS was among the worst of his career. He largely served as a designated hitter instead of playing first base due to problems with his hamstrings and feet.

Pujols heads into 2017 with 591 career homers, ranking him ninth in major league history. He is 18 homers behind Sammy Sosa for eighth place.

After playing in pain until the final week of the Angels’ disappointing season, Pujols began shock wave therapy on his foot early in the offseason, believing he wouldn’t need surgery.

But Pujols’ foot became more painful in recent weeks despite the therapy, and he huddled with the Angels’ top brass to decide on surgery after his most recent trip to see Dr. Robert Anderson in North Carolina. Continuing with conservative care would have required 10 more weeks, forcing Pujols to miss the first half of the 2017 season if he still required surgery.

“He just felt that the pain had gotten to a point where he was comfortable” having surgery, Eppler said. “If we did delay it, you’re just looking at 2 1/2 more months into the season.”

Pujols had a different type of surgery on his right foot last winter, but recovered in time for opening day. He also had plantar fasciitis in his left foot during the 2013 season, eventually forcing him out for the year when his fascia snapped.

Pujols has five years and $140 million remaining on the 10-year, $240 million free-agent contract that pried him out of St. Louis, where he won two World Series and became a nine-time NL All-Star.

The Angels haven’t won a playoff game since Pujols’ arrival and Mike Trout‘s concurrent emergence as one of baseball’s best players. They went 74-88 last season, the injury-plagued club’s worst record since 1999.