It’s been two-plus season’s since Derek Jeter last played in a Major League Baseball game.
Baseball hasn’t forgotten.
He’s a name that is synonymous with the Yankees with the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Don Mattingly and Mariano Rivera. He’s synonymous with the shortstop position, having played more games there than anybody not named Omar Vizquel. His No. 2 has become the most sought after the number on the back of players at all levels, especially shortstops.
Most people will remember Jeter for that inside-out swing that allowed him to spray the ball to all sides of the field, and helped put him sixth all-time in hits in MLB history. They’ll remember his jump throw from deep in the hole to his left, getting runners out at first base. Heck, the play is now named after him by broadcasters.
Baseball hasn’t moved on.
Since his departure to do others things he’s wanted in life including owning a baseball team, having a hand in the media and starting a family of his own, baseball has yet to have one player stand out as the face of the game.
Basketball has LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant. Football has Tom Brady and every other great quarterback. Hockey has Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Baseball though doesn’t exactly have names that stand out to the undevoted fans.
Mike Trout is the best player in the universe. Bryce Harper is the phenomenon that made the front cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 16 and is living up to the hype. Kris Bryant has the gifts and smile that most people would die for. But none of those three are the set face to baseball. Why?
Derek Jeter was in all rights a bland guy. He never said things that could be twisted in one way or another. He did most of his leadership by example on the field and talking about clubhouse issues behind closed doors. He was arguably not even the greatest player on his Yankees’ clubs having Rivera and Alex Rodriguez among other notable players on the same roster for his 20-year career. He never won an MVP award unlike A-Rod, but he still wound being the face of the game for over a decade.
Right or wrong, baseball is a game that even the greatest are now questioned as to whether there’s something behind their success. With steroids — something Jeter was never questioned about — headlining the discussions the past 15-plus years, it’s likely not going to go away anytime soon.
Can any of the aforementioned names of Trout, Bryant or Harper be the face of baseball? Yes, and they should be.
They’re all decorated players, having combined four MVP awards, 11 All-Star Game nods, three Hank Aaron Awards, six Silver Slugger awards, an RBI title (Trout), stolen base title (Trout), home run title (Harper) and World Series title (Bryant). Surprisingly — mostly for Trout — none of them have won a Gold Glove.
None of them are lacking the personal success early on.
Bryant is the closest in comparison to Jeter, playing an infield position in the large Chicago market. He has won a World Series in his early years, and he, like Jeter, has had a lot of talent placed around him to make his throw to Anthony Rizzo in the tenth inning of Game 7 possible.
Trout though plays in another large sports market in Los Angeles. Despite him being the best all-around player the game has seen in decades, his team has got nothing to show for it. He’s played in just one postseason series, having been eliminated by the Kansas City Royals in the AL Division Series in 2015.
Trout is a lot like Jeter, he is willing to do a lot of marketing for baseball, but is a quiet folk. He goes about his business and plays the game the best he can. After all, he is a nightly highlight machine that makes people scratch their heads and say ‘How in the world does this kid make the game look so easy?’
Bryce Harper has taken a different path. His team took him first overall and seen the results pay off for a pair of NL East titles. That hasn’t carried over in the postseason as the Washington Nationals were eliminated in the first round each time they’ve made the postseason.
Athletes are measured by the weight of success, especially postseason. Jeter was not short on that in his career, especially in the early goings. It also helped that he was an everyday player and not a pitcher. Otherwise, Rivera would have made a stronger case.
That sort of fortune hasn’t played out for Buster Posey, a catcher for the San Francisco giants that has won three World Series titles and has a number of personal accolades, including an MVP award.
There are other notable players that make strong cases including, but not limited to Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, Cubs’ Rizzo, Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, Mariners’ Robinson Cano, Orioles’ Manny Machado, and Rockies’ Nolan Arenado. There are even more that could surprise some like the young talent pool the Yankees, Dodgers, and Cubs all possess, Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts in Boston, as well as Francisco Lindor in Cleveland.
Baseball is America’s pastime, but it needs to become more relevant in the present by showing off its new stars. There are plenty of them, and more to come.
Having Ken Griffey Jr. on the cover of the sport’s best-selling video game brings out the passion of a lot of baseball fans that have seen The Kid do his thing in Seattle, but it doesn’t help the younger generation catch an interest.
Neither does having Derek Jeter remain the face of baseball despite being removed from the game for 2 ½ years now and the team he spent playing 20 years for has plans for another parade in the Canyon of Heroes without The Captain involved.
Baseball won’t forget all the great things Jeter has done, and nor should it. In a controversial era, Jeter became the face by winning the right way. There are a lot of players doing the same in the exciting post-Jeter era.
It’s time for baseball to take a page from the Yankees, and move on with the times, but remember the pioneers who blazed the path to today.