Red Sox

The End of A Rivalry: Considering 20 Complicated Seasons of Derek Jeter Vs. the Red Sox

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Since he announced on Facebook in February that the 2014 baseball season would be his last, Derek Jeter’s long goodbye has played out just as an unbiased baseball fan might have expected. It’s been a perpetual real-time retrospective on his exceptional, exaggerated 20-year-career, a contradictory farewell that is classy and crass, sometimes at the same moment.

As the personally chosen background music to his manipulatively irresistible sugary-beverage commercial confirms, Jeter has planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway. Damned if this chronic celebration of His Way wasn’t punctuated with one last Yeah Jeets vintage moment, a winning hit in his final at-bat at Yankee Stadium. To think he did all that, and then once more, and it makes you wonder if there is any separation between the man and the myth.

This Viking funeral, with all mourners dressed crisply in pinstripes, has never deviated from the plan. It’s been Jeter as he wants us to know him, with only scattered, enlightening glimpses of candor and contradiction, an authentic man and yet a man who authenticated every trinket from this tour (anyone need a $409 sock?) he encouraged and discouraged at once.

If you didn’t know it coming in, you do now: the unbiased perspective on Derek Jeter will not be found at this address. There’s too much history, too many plot twists, too many perfectly placed singles to right field, too many sharp glares after a hit or after being hit. At various stages, some overlapping, he has been the Red Sox’ most feared opponent, the most respected, the most overrated, and the most over-praised.

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Now it’s just over, or will be after these final innings. And so today, as he adds one final Fenway addendum to Thursday’s perfect ending in the Bronx, we confront our own complicated goodbye to the old nemesis. Amid the mixed-message salutes of DER-REK JEE-TER CLAP CLAP CLAP-CLAP-CLAP and NOMAH’S STILL BETTAH!, we at least know the sendoff will be respectful, unlike last season’s mocking, thanks-for-2004-ha-ha “tribute” to the ever-gracious Mariano Rivera, which was a Jeffrey Ross appearance shy of being a celebrity roast. But we will also be conflicted: Saying goodbye to an opponent who so often left you cursing and feeling cursed, an opponent you often wished would go away, shouldn’t be this difficult.

But it is. It is. We remember how things were. Jeter won – his Yankees won, often and again, as if plotted by a prolific scriptwriter with a Boston vendetta – in a time when the losses were affecting and painful to Red Sox fans. Some weirdos among us still long for those days, their anguish now a ghost limb, 1918 just another year in which the Red Sox won. I do not get those people.

So much has changed with us through the last 20 years — well, 10, really. But little has changed about Jeter; he still looks like who he was then, still breaks out all the familiar smirking, charming, first-pumping mannerisms. If he’s gained weight, it’s been in ounces, not pounds. He shaved his head before the hair departed on its own accord. The word intangibles still sticks to him as a way of filling in the void between the reality of his production (in 160 games since the beginning of the 2013 season, he has hit .248/.301/.306) and the odd desire to applaud and honor him for more than he has done.

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Jeter retired from shortstop just this Thursday, roughly a decade after he should have. His place in the batting order still matches the number on his back, an ironic detriment given the Yankees’ narrow miss of the postseason. His subpar performance and refusal to take initiative and suggest a lesser role – manager Joe Girardi was a willing hostage to the festivities — played some part in missing out on one more visit to the playoff playground where he made his legend. He’s selfless player, maybe, but one with non-negotiable exceptions.

Our perception – our New England perception – of Jeter through the two decades has shifted correspondingly with our reality. If that Yankees fan in your life attempts one more time for all the old times to claim Jeter is the greatest Yankee of them all – or among the top five, even — counter with this indisputable truth: The franchise’s hammer-nail rivalry with the Red Sox ended on his watch.

He won a single championship in his final 14 seasons. The Red Sox have won – let’s see, 2004 … 2007 … 2013 … yes, I do believe it is three World Series titles in that time, including the first, which was fulfilling beyond even the most indefatigable optimist’s wildest dreams because of how it happened. The biggest collapse in postseason history happened to a team Jeter captained. The great and lauded winner, Mr. November himself, could not sustain the tradition set by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle and Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson. He could not keep the decades-long shutout streak going. Had he been able to do so, I can tell you this: They damn sure would not be hawking Farewell, Captain t-shirts on Yawkey Way this weekend.

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Yankees fans, even some satisfied Red Sox fans, might believe it is unfair to suggest the shift in the franchises’ dynamic is Jeter’s doing. I get it, but you know what? I’m doing it anyway. It’s wholly fair — hell, it is our duty. For years, Red Sox fans had to endure Jeter receiving an exaggerated portion of the credit when his exceptional teams (the 2004 Red Sox are my favorite team, but the ’98 Yankees are the best I’ve seen) left them behind en route to another parade in the Canyon of Heroes.

We had to suffer that for years, relentlessly, painfully, with rehashed reminders from the media shoved down our throats every single time the teams met. It’s only right that he gets some heat for the Red Sox renaissance. It happened while he was on duty.

Hey, you can find your reasoned homages elsewhere. The purple ones, too, and the hyperbolic ones, and the shamelessly commercial ones.

This is Derek Jeter through the Boston prism. These are the remember-whens along the way that shaped how we see him, how he will be remembered after he faces today’s final curtain.

* * *

1995-96

This is when we noticed him.

Do you remember? I do, and it had nothing to do with the Red Sox. While the 1995 AL East champion Red Sox were getting bashed out of the playoffs by the Cleveland Indians of Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez and, somehow, Tony Pena, the Yankees, the inaugural AL wild card winners, were engaged in an epic playoff series of their own with the Seattle Mariners.

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You may recall how it ended: With Ken Griffey Jr.’s electric smile beaming from the bottom of a home-plate pileup after he scored on Edgar Martinez’s series-winning double in Game 5.

You may also recall how the Mariners put themselves into position to win that game. Yankees pitcher David Cone walked the immortal Doug Strange with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth, tying the game at four. It was Cone’s 147th and final pitch of the day.

As Cone shuffled back to the dugout, exhausted and a strike short of where he’d hoped he’d be, the first teammate to greet him was someone who wasn’t even on the playoff roster, a 21-year-old with 15 games of experience. Even then, Jeter found the October spotlight.

Little did we know then, as the Yankees bowed out, that it was not just a glimpse of his admirable, insufferable confidence, but a full foreshadowing of how October would be the next half-dozen or so years: With Jeter in the middle of everything.

Though he would go on to win the AL Rookie of the Year – oh, if only George Steinbrenner had listened to the exec that spring who believed Jeter wasn’t ready and wanted to use a one-pitch reliever named Mariano Rivera as the bait to get Seattle shortstop Felix Fermin — I don’t remember paying him much mind during the ‘96 season until a September game at Yankee Stadium that aired on Fox.

Batting seventh – one spot ahead of his current manager, Girardi – Jeter rapped three hits, including the winning RBI single in the bottom of the 10th to give the Yankees an 11-10 victory. I do not have anything beyond circumstantial evidence of this, but I remain forever convinced that this is the precise moment Joe Buck and Tim McCarver became smitten, and the network’s tireless deification of Jeter began. I wrote this in 2001 while working for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.

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The Fox cameras are addicted to the Yankees’ telegenic shortstop. It might be comical if it weren’t so annoying. Worse, Jeter is in the habit of giving them exactly the look they’re hoping for; he always seems to know when it’s time for his closeup. He never fails to be the first one out of the dugout, hatless, with a well-placed Gatorade towel around his shoulders. At first glance it appears as though he’s being a rah-rah team player, but after seeing the scene repeated 1,000 times, you begin wondering if it’s a subtle infringement on his teammates’ glory.

My only regret – no, I don’t have a few — is that it took five years to address. Not much has changed in the years since. The Gatorade relationship has survived longer than so many of his legendary personal ones.

And I can recall one – one — time in his career when he wasn’t perched at the dugout railing virtually the entire game. Two nights ago, at Fenway. The camera searched, but he wasn’t there. It’s as if he was practicing being gone.

* * *

1998-99

This is when we envied him.

The prince of New York became the king of October, winning four championships (1996, 1998-2000) in five seasons and building a deserved reputation as cool, poised and dependable, someone who would rise to meet the moment.

It began in ’96 with a home run that should have been an F9 in the scorebook – the famous Jeffrey Maier-assisted solo shot in Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS. He made his luck on other, later occasions as well – his legendary sprint across the infield and backhand flip to nab the A’s oblivious Jeremy Giambi at the plate in Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS was a breathtaking, instinctive play few in baseball history would have made. And yet I’m still not sure Giambi, who did not slide, was actually out.

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He was lucky and clutch and talented … and did I mention lucky? Actually, Jeter’s greatest postseason trick is a neat one, a subtle confirmation of his prolonged brilliance: in the playoffs, he was the same as he ever was.

Here’s what I mean: Entering Saturday’s game, the 2,746th of the 2,747 he’ll play in his career, Jeter’s career regular season slash-line was .309/.377/.440. And his postseason slash line in 158 playoff games, essentially a full season? .308/.374/.465. When the competition got tougher and the pressure choked the breath out of lesser men, he was the exact player he was in the regular season. He didn’t play his best in big moments. He played like he always did.

So why the envy of a player so worthy of admiration? Why give a jump-throw of a damn about Jeter? Like you have to ask. It was the winning, first in foremost, wearing that uniform and that smirk, with the Red Sox often the sorry victim. But it was more than that, more than the Groundhog Day heartbreak at this end of the rivalry.

It was that Jeter had every advantage. He was the perfect match of player, city, and moment in time, a serendipitous twist of good fortune captured perfectly by the title of his 2000 autobiography, “The Life You Imagine.” Jeter did not have to carry a superbly built team, with Rivera and Paul O’Neill and Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte and on and on. He merely had to be himself, a big-market Barry Larkin, to receive a disproportionate amount of the credit. Everything he imagined came true.

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Meanwhile, for generations, our dreams went unfulfilled, which made the chronic Jeter feting all the more insufferable – especially since our shortstop was superior. Or to put it in the past-tense parlance of the time: Nomah was bettah! It was the Red Sox-Yankees debate of the era, the Williams-DiMaggio or Fisk-Munson fan feud of the generation.

But for the first four full seasons in which they were counterparts (1997-2000), there should have been no debate. Jeter’s best season in the span, 1999, was arguably Garciaparra’s worst – and Nomar hit .357 that year, winning his first of consecutive batting titles. Those were the days when it seemed like he hit a line drive somewhere every single time at-bat.

Those Red Sox teams were fun, even valiant, but when measured against the Yankees, it felt like Pedro, Nomar, and 23 role players against the world. Their weaknesses were always exposed. Nomar was better than Jeter. Jeter’s team was better than Nomar’s.

Despite Nomar’s mostly forgotten efforts – he had an 1.166 OPS in three ALDS and an .869 OPS in two ALCS appearances with the Red Sox — the better team always prevailed.

Eventually, Jeter outlasted the debate. He even played a role in Nomar’s departure from Boston, diving into the stands and bloodying his face during a July 2004 classic in which Nomar was a conscientious objector. Nomar, our guy, became a Cub a few weeks later. There was no overcoming the life Jeter imagined.

* * *

2003

This is when you hated him.

I hate that word, hate, but sometimes there is no softer synonym, and there is no other word to capture Red Sox’ fans feelings for the Yankees during the 2003 ALCS.

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I don’t want to dwell on it, because you know all the key phrases and touchstones: Who is Karim Garcia, and the Zimmer Throwdown, and Timlin in the eighth, Williamson in the ninth and Aaron Bleepin’ Boone and… well, let’s put it this way.

My girlfriend then, now my wife, said she’s never seen me more down than after the Red Sox’ Game 7 loss.

And she’s right. It’s not that I was depressed as much as I was wondering why I dedicated so much of my life to following a franchise that punctuated every hopeful season with breathtaking anguish. If that team, a deeply talented team of rich characters and admirable character, could not win in the end, who the hell would?

It was hate, and Jeter was right at the black heart of it. His home run in Game 3 at Fenway lit Pedro’s fuse, with fireworks to come. His double, assisted by a Trot Nixon rain dance, in the eighth inning of Game 7 got the devastating rally started. Yeah, I’m not proud of it. But if you were there, you understand.

Yeah, it was hate, and it left us scouring what was left of our souls. And then …

* * *

OCTOBER 20, 2004

This is when they conquered him.

This is when it all changed, when the life we imagined happened on Jeter’s watch. And yet during the overdue conquering, the ultimate tribute was paid to Jeter in the process.

Among all of the moments during the final four games of the 2004 ALCS that left you waiting to exhale – all these years later, it still blows my mind that Tony Clark’s ball found the stands, or that Tek caught just as many knuckleballs he needed to, or that Joe West got two crucial calls right for the visiting team, or that David Ortiz won two games in the same day, or that Jeter didn’t steal an out on Dave Roberts’s steal, or so very much more – there is one moment that confirmed the Red Sox were finally going to do it, that they would overcome the Yankees on their own soil in the most satisfying way imaginable and all heaven would break loose.

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It is when Mike Timlin got Jeter on a groundball to third base to open the eighth inning of Game 7. That’s it. A routine grounder to third that was never part of the routine before. When Jeter was retired for the last time, that’s when we could exhale. There would be no repeat of the eighth inning of the previous autumn’s Game 7. Jeter was done. The Yankees were done too.

Now that we’re coming to the final innings of Jeter’s career, that hour when he is not done for a series but done for good, there is one more phase of his career that must be addressed before the Hub bids him adieu.

This is when we ask:

When was the last time Jeter tormented the Red Sox? It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? I remember a sharp single of some magnitude off, oh, I guess Jonathan Papelbon four or five years ago, and a home run off Curt Schilling that I vaguely recall, and a few other timely hits here or there, but the specifics are insignificant enough that they don’t stick with you.

Those final four games of the 2004 ALCS really did change everything. The Red Sox and Yankees haven’t met in the playoffs in the decade since. New York won a World Series in 2009, Jeter’s fifth but his only one in his final 14 seasons. David Ortiz officially bumped Jeter from the October pedestal. The Red Sox won two more titles after ’04.

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Jeter finally had his share of losing. This is how we always wanted it to be, the life we imagined, periodic last-place finishes notwithstanding.

Today, we’ll do something that a decade ago seemed as unlikely as winning a World Series: We’ll cheer Derek Jeter at Fenway Park, honoring him fully, mocking him gently, and starting that countdown clock to Cooperstown.

Because in the end – at the end of one of the finest and blessed careers in baseball history — this is how a Red Sox fan should bid farewell to the ancient and worthy enemy captain.

In the end, this is how a Red Sox fan sees Derek Jeter. A conquering hero for so long, a hero conquered for even longer.

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