Baseball’s Last Hero

baseballHOFThe regular season has come to a close and the postseason opens tomorrow (Tues. 9/30/14).  Derek Jeter’s twenty-year Hall of Fame baseball career has come to a close.  Although I am a Mets fan and my second favorite team is anybody who can beat the Yankees, I have to tip my hat Jeter, a hero of the game, and there are so few left.

When I was a mere lad of eleven, I saw one of Willie Mays’s last games in 1973 in a Mets uniform albeit in the HOF as a New York/San Francisco Giant.  I did not see the beginning of Willie’s career as that was in 1951 and I was born in 1962, but I saw Willie retire in 1973 and I saw Derek’s entire career from rookie year to retirement.  Using baseball, our national pastime with a few quirks such as the designated hitter and the challenge-reviews, remains ubiquitous in time, I have been on this earth for a long time.

Perhaps Willie was the greatest of my contemporaries.  He was a five-tool player who played for the love of the game.  I would have to see the backs of both final year bubble gum cards of the two players side by side to be able to tell you who was the better ballplayer.  I think Willie would win as the better ballplayer, but Derek was by far the better athlete. 

Willie’s final season with the Mets was in 1973; a baseball season that was off the bell-curve with the Mets in last place in the National League East for more than half the season, climbing over everyone and in first place on August 30th, and winning the division title with a record of 82-79 with one un-made-up rain out in Chicago.  Willie’s contribution to that campaign was at best ignominious.  He struck out a lot, his speed diminished; he was even losing the ability to make his signature basket-catch in centerfield.  A rookie named Don Hahn played more games in centerfield including in the playoffs against the Cincinnati Reds and the World Series losing to the Oakland A’s in seven games.

Derek was a contributor right to his last game in Boston and in the last game he ever played in pinstripes in the Bronx, got the hit that drove in the winning run.  Not all changes in the game are positive, but one thing that has changed a lot is the way the twenty-first athlete is conditioned; he can stay in good shape in his forties and still make it happen on the field, court, or ice.  If you look at photos of Ty Cobb or Grover Cleveland Alexander, they looked old when they were young,  They were both great ballplayers whose HOF induction when the Hall in Cooperstown opened in 1939 was well deserved, but ballplayers of that era were not athletes; they were weathered men playing a kids game.

With the game tainted by PEDs, overexpansion, postseason play going up against more-popular regular season football, Derek Jeter was the first hero of Major League Baseball since the Say Hey Kid and will probably be the last for a while.  I can never be a Yankee fan, but I tip my cap to the great Derek Jeter—see you in Cooperstown.

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