The Yankees' 2014 season is dwindling in its opportunities to do everything, it seems, except to celebrate Derek Jeter. Barring some as-yet-unforeseen tear with an underachieving lineup and a makeshift rotation, the Yankees will finish outside the playoff picture for the second straight season, the first time that has happened since 1992-1993, which is to say the years 4 and 3 B.D.J. Before ... well, you get it.
It should have been awkward to celebrate even a Hall of Fame-bound player under such circumstances, particularly one who hardly relishes the attention paid to his individual accomplishments ahead of those of his team. But on Sunday in the Bronx, the Yankees bulldozed such awkwardness by doing what they do best: Over-the-top pomp. They swung for the fences in Ruthian -- or more aptly, Steinbrennerian -- fashion, providing a respite from the present reality surrounding the team and the day's honoree via a star-spangled gala. While they didn't get the usually stoic Jeter to summon the waterworks, the 40-year-old team captain made clear that he enjoyed the stops they pulled out.
"It was awesome," he said following the game, a 2-0 loss to the Royals. "The Yankees know how to throw big ceremonies. To be part of it, having all those people come out there to honor you and show their support, and the fans, the way they treated me, this is something that I'll remember forever.
"I enjoyed every minute of it. But when I was done speaking and people were standing around, I thought it was time to say, 'We've got to play a game.'"
That the focus would fall on Jeter under such circumstances -- fading playoff hopes, another lifeless showing from their offense -- was inevitable, though hardly unprecedented. Just a year ago, Mariano Rivera played the same Farewell Circuit as the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and the second time since 1993. The difference there -- apart from Rivera's preternatural grace and sincere desire to connect with fans, players and ballpark employees as he took his last lap around the majors -- was that the great closer, if not at the absolute zenith of his career, was still good enough to rank among the game's best. Nobody would have batted an eye had he put a halt to the festivities and instead chose to continue pitching his 60 innings a year, even at age 44.
Jeter, on the other hand, is limping toward the finish line, in the throes of a dreadful post-July slump that makes for awkward questions and suggestions. Should he volunteer to hit lower in the order? Should manager Joe Girardi nail him to the bench and play the even lighter-hitting Stephen Drew or Brendan Ryan at short? Coming into Sunday's game hitting .260/.306/.311, he's no longer good enough to merit everyday play except on reputation, and hasn't been since that October 2012 night when his left ankle gave way as he chased a ground ball.
Sure, you can scroll through the ranks of everyday shortstops and imagine that plugging in a better one -- or a younger, healthier model of the Captain -- to replace this replacement-level shell would place the Yankees in a playoff-bound position. But given a lineup with perhaps two regulars (Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner) meeting or exceeding expectations, and a rotation missing three-fifths of its preseason blueprint, an upgrade at shortstop would have made little difference in the grand scheme.
Hardly the best atmosphere to throw a party, perhaps, but as with the way a playoff-free team closed out The House That Ruth Built back in 2008, the Yankees went ahead and did so in gaudy fashion. They plastered the Jeter Final Season Logo (capitalized, ahem) everywhere: on patches for their pinstriped uniforms, on a ring of flags flying around the top of Yankee Stadium, on the grass in foul territory down the first- and third-base lines and on the baseballs used for Sunday's game. In the Great Hall, the stadium's outer concourse, they unveiled a 30-foot by 30-foot photo banner of Jeter connecting for one of his 3,449 hits, larger than life for all to see.
The Yankees brought in his family: Grandmother Dorothy Connors ("The reason why I was a Yankees fan," Jeter said later), parents Dr. Charles and Dot, sister Sharlee and nephew Jalen. Dozens of "Jeter's Leaders" from his Turn 2 Foundation took the field for the ceremony as well. Also on hand for the festivities were several former teammates from championship teams: David Cone, Tino Martinez, Hideki Matsui, Paul O'Neill, Jorge Posada, Tim Raines, Rivera, Bernie Williams and Gerald Williams, plus former head athletic trainer Gene Monahan. From among the "Core Four," only Andy Pettitte was missing due to the oldest excuse in the book, an elk-hunting commitment with his son. Commissioner-elect Rob Manfred showed up, as did Reggie Jackson, "Mr. October" to Jeter's "Mr. November," and for some reason, MLB Network broadcaster Harold Reynolds.
Former manager and recent Cooperstown inductee Joe Torre was also on hand, and prior to the game shared a favorite memory from 1996, the first full major-league season of the shortstop's career:
"The first year, the first playoff game we had against Texas, I think he made an error that could have contributed to losing a game. I was asked by one of the media if I felt I had to talk to him, the fact that he was a rookie, devastation and all that stuff. I said, 'I'll figure that out. If I need to, I will.'
"On his way out of the clubhouse, he peeks into my office -- he was on his way home -- and says, 'Mr. Torre, get your rest tonight. Tomorrow is the most important game of your life.'
"I said, 'I don't need to talk to him.'"
Prior to the festivities, Girardi expressed concern that with a game to follow, Jeter might not fully immerse himself in the occasion: "I hope he has the chance to take in the magnitude of the moment. But that's not his personality." But Jeter, unaware of exactly what the Yankees had planned for him, did manage to do so, at least to a point. "I didn't go in with any expectations, I was surprised by a few of the people that showed up."
Indeed, among the surprise guests introduced later in the festivities were a trio of Hall of Famers: Dave Winfield, Jeter's idol growing up; Cal Ripken Jr., the player who provided the template for a generation of tall, offense-minded shortstops; and Michael Jordan, the superstar who provided the template for athlete-as-multinational brand. The Yankees reached even further into the stratosphere for other special guests: a trio of astronauts on the International Space Station replicated the "Re2pect" salute while floating in zero gravity:
Following the special guests, various Steinbrenners and Yankees officials came bearing gifts: A massage therapy machine, a frame with patches from Jeter's 14 All-Star appearances, a 10-day trip to Tuscany, a check for $222,222.22 to Jeter's Turn 2 Foundation, a Waterford crystal bearing an inscription (again?), even a proclamation from New York City mayor Bill de Blasio declaring Sept. 7, 2014 as "Derek Jeter Day." All that was missing was a funeral pyre on the mound to send Jeter into the afterlife.
For as over the top as it was, and for as much Jeter Fatigue as the average fan has by now (particularly after this year's All-Star Game turned into its own Jeter lovefest), none of it would have happened without the player's singular resume -- 14 All-Star appearances, five World Series rings, the No. 6 spot on the all-time hits list and the top spot on that and several other Yankees leaderboards -- or the near-universal respect of those with and against whom he's played. You can roll your eyes at the media characterizations of the values that Jeter embodies, and the frequency with which words like "special" and "class" pop up when teammates and opponents describe him, but his peers aren't merely paying lip service when they speak of his focus, his tireless work ethic, or the positive example he has set during his career. They genuinely view him that way, and strive to emulate him, on and off the field. Hence stuff like this "One Word for 2" tribute page on MLB.com from other stars, specially assembled for the occasion.
The pregame ceremony wrapped up with a brief address from Jeter:
After thanking the Steinbrenner family, his own family and friends, and his managers, coaches and teammates, here's what Jeter told the crowd of 48,110:
Lastly, most importantly, I want to thank you, the fans. Everyone that’s here today, anyone that’s at home watching, anyone that’s ever been here over the course or watched during the last 20 seasons, thank you very much.
You guys have all watched me grow up over the last 20 years. I watched you too. Some of you guys getting old too. But I want to thank you for helping me feel like a kid for the last 20 years.
In my opinion, I’ve had the greatest job in the world. I got a chance to be the shortstop for the New York Yankees, and there’s only one of those. And I always felt as though that my job was to try to provide joy and entertainment for you guys, but it can’t compare to what you brought me. So, for that, thank you very much.
Of course there was still the small matter of a game to play, one of the more unusual aspects of the festivities. As Jeter described it afterwards:
"We have three weeks left in the season and we're trying to win games, so it was a unique situation. I don't know if there's many people who've been in that situation, so it's kind of tough to explain how you feel. You appreciate all the support, the kind words that people are saying, but at the same time, I'm still trying to play a game. It's difficult to juggle at times."
In a scene that recalled what the American League All-Stars did for Rivera at Citi Field last summer -- staying back in the dugout while the closer took the mound and the spotlight alone -- Jeter's teammates remained behind as he ran onto the field prior to the national anthem and received yet another ovation. "I do the same thing every game, so I was unaware of the fact that no one was behind me," he said later, allowing a bit of his deadpan wit to peek through. "Chase [Headley] and [Martin] Prado are usually next to me during the anthem, and when I saw they weren't there, I turned around and saw no one was out there. First thought is that I messed up and ran out there too early."
Even during the game, the tributes continued. The Yankees slapped adulatory quotations alongside each player's visage on the centerfield DiamondVision as he came to bat ("I've always admired Derek from afar, and getting a chance to play with him this season has been an experience that I'll never forget" - Brian McCann), and play videotaped congratulations from the varied likes of Robinson Cano (who drew boos from a large segment of the crowd), Billy Crystal, Eli Manning, Regis Philbin, Seth Rogen and Buck Showalter.
Alas, Jeter couldn't produce the kind of fireworks that made July 9, 2011 -- the day his home run off David Price kicked off a 5-for-5 performance that carried him over the 3,000 hit threshold -- just one of the signature events of his career. But he did get on base twice in his four plate appearances, no small accomplishment for a player who came in hitting .209/.230/.264 since the start of August, getting on base multiple times in just six out of 31 games.
In the first inning against Royals starter Yordano Ventura, Jeter collected an infield single on a grounder hit into the 5.5 hole, one that could only have been prevented by the kind of Jeter jump-throw that he used to pull off a decade and a half ago; not even the rangy Alcides Escobar was up to the task, for his long, arced toss arrived late. Later, he worked a six-pitch walk in the third inning, though Ventura struck him out in the fifth.
Unfortunately, as has so often been the case this season, the rest of The Offense Formerly Known As The Bronx Bombers wasn't up to the task of providing support. Lacking Gardner -- improbably, their leader in slugging percentage (.442) and OPS+ (121) -- due to an abdominal injury, they couldn't even score two for 2. They collected just two additional singles and three walks during Ventura's six-plus innings, and advanced a runner to second base just twice; forget about third or home.
Meanwhile, Yankees starter Shane Greene labored through a 29-pitch first inning without giving up a run, but he wasn't so lucky in the second inning, as a Josh Willingham swinging bunt single, a Mike Moustakas single, and his own throwing error on a Norichika Aoki grounder produced a run. The Royals took advantage of another error in the third inning, when Carlos Beltran dropped Alex Gordon's flyball; Gordon stole second and came home on Eric Hosmer's single, though Hosmer was thrown out 9-2-6-4 trying to stretch it into a double.
Once Ventura departed, the Yankees fared little better against the Royals' lights-out bullpen of Aaron Crow, Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis, going 1-for-8 while grounding into a double play to erase the runner Ventura left behind to start the seventh. A Beltran single to lead off the ninth inning brought the tying run to the plate, but Davis sandwiched strikeouts of McCann and Drew around a Mark Teixiera groundout to preserve the victory.
With the loss, the Yankees fell to 73-68, 9 1/2 behind the Orioles in the AL East race, and 4 1/2 back in the Wild Card race with the Tigers (one back) and the Indians (3 1/2 back) ahead of them. They began the day with their playoff odds at 2.9 percent, and they're now lower. The season and Jeter's career are one game closer to their inevitable conclusion.