When A-Rod re-signed with the Yankees, one of my first thoughts was that YFs would be witness to a passing of the torch over the coming decade that might be tough to take. The face of the Yankees would sooner or later be Alex Rodriguez and not Derek Jeter.
Does that mean much other than what face FOX TV puts on their promos for over-hyped April games between the Yankees and the Red Sox? Perhaps not. There is no such thing as the "mantle of a team" for one guy to take from another and many teams – some of the best ever – have multiple leaders and no out-front guy (think late 90s Yankees and the recent Sox championship teams).
And yet, Jeter is the captain of the Yankees and he and A-Rod are contemporaries – only a year apart in age and, until A-Rod came to NY, they played the same position. Comparisons between them are therefore inevitable and Jeter would not come out nicely in any stat comparison to A-Rod, except of course for clutch stats and number of championships which, sadly for A-Rod, is all that matters to most fans.
And so we come to the emotion and irrationality of fans enamored with players who have brought them past success – an irrationality in which I indulge fully. Until a Yankee team with A-Rod wins a championship, it is hard for me to acknowledge A-Rod as a more important part of the Yankees than Jeter though, not being a crazy person, I know it would be foolish to argue otherwise.
So I guess I do believe somehow in the passing of torches and the taking of mantles even if it is all just emotional hooey. And as I’ve thought about it, in the Jeter to A-Rod passing, there are echoes of many past Yankee torchbearer transitions – Ruth to Gehrig, Gehrig to DiMaggio, DiMaggio to Mantle, even Munson to Jackson – but one fundamental difference that sets it apart and explains why I am having such a tough time accepting this one.
First, a look at the previous Yankee transitions:
Like Jeter and A-Rod, the best back-to-back hitters ever, Ruth and Gehrig, were more contemporaries than they were predecessor-successor (though sadly this had much to do with Gehrig’s life being cut short) and, for the most part, they co-existed well. Whatever uneasiness there was between them came late in both their careers with Gehrig’s belief that his wife had cheated on him with Ruth during a barnstorming trip to Japan (and you thought A-Rod and Madonna was a big story). But they overlapped for most of their careers, with Ruth starting in NY in 1920, Gehrig joining the team in 1923 and taking over the starting 1B role in 1925, and they more or less peaked over the same period. Ruth’s decline was only really apparent in his last two seasons with the Yankees (1933 and ’34) – while Gehrig was still in his prime – and then Ruth was gone.
But more to the point of transitions, Ruth’s stage personality combined with Gehrig’s intense shyness made it impossible that anyone would ever question who was the leader, the face of the franchise, or even the better player (even when, in those last couple years of the Babe’s Yankee career, it was clearly not him). No one would be the leader of a team or the face of a franchise that had the Babe other than the Babe and shy Gehrig was not about to stake a claim anyway.
When Joe DiMaggio arrived to much fanfare in 1936, Gehrig was still a quiet beast at the plate, but ALS rapidly ate away at his playing abilities arguably beginning in 1938 and then suddenly ending his career just weeks into the 1939 season, so they only played together for 3 full seasons during which Gehrig was only Gehrig for two of them. Already in those seasons however, the attention and lauding of DiMaggio was annoying to Gehrig – a guy who I believe still stands as one of the top 5 hitters to ever play the game, but who toiled under the shadow of the best ever for his entire career, only to be eclipsed again almost as soon as Ruth left by a newcomer who was preceded by a mountain of PR and hype before he had even gotten his first hit as a Yankee (sound familiar?). Granted, Gehrig was a superior talent to Jeter (even allowing for the sketchiness of cross-era comparisons SF) and of course DiMaggio was not mid-career when he arrived as was A-Rod, but otherwise the dynamic of this transition has echoes of Jeter to A-Rod, with previously successful fan-favorite Jeter being named team captain less than a year before the highly-hyped arrival of the player destined to overshadow him.
The transition from DiMaggio to Mantle consisted of the 1951 season in which they both played. The similarities to Jeter-A-Rod are more stylistic here – the giving of way from the natural, perfectly instinctive ballplayer with a love affair with the fans and a seemingly airbrushed public image to the massive slugger is not entirely unfamiliar to today’s Yankee fan.
The 70’s saw perhaps the most tense vying for team leadership in Yankee history between captain Thurmon Munson and star Reggie "the straw" Jackson in 1977 and ’78. Neither was soft-spoken nor likely to defer to the other. But winning cured all ill-will between them and then Munson’s tragic passing in ’79 made it all moot and trivial in retrospect. Like A-Rod, Jackson was an established star before he stepped onto a NY stage that already had a team captain.
What sets Jeter-to-A-Rod apart from all the Yankee transitions noted above is that those were made easy for fans to accept by the immediate success that the team achieved with the new star in pinstripes.
Other than Ruth/Gehrig (who "only" won 6 championships in the 10 full seasons in which they were both starters), every other duo above won the World Series in every season they played together – 4 in the first 4 years that DiMaggio played, including the 3 and change that Gehrig played with him; 1 in the single season that DiMaggio/Mantle were together; and 2 in the only 2 full seasons that Munson and Jackson played together.
The 90’s dynasty emerged without a single star or headline name – the team leader and the face of the franchise was best captured by a group photo. And then came Jeter’s captaincy in 2003 and A-Rod’s celebrated arrival in 2004.
Why post this now, 4 years into A-Rod’s career in pinstripes? Because due to the drop in Jeter’s performance while A-Rod remains A-Rod, this feels like the year that the transition from Jeter’s team to A-Rod’s team can no longer be denied, regardless of the fact that – without a championship – it feels premature to pass the torch.
2008 has been a tough one for Jeter-files. His .280 BA / .343 OBP / .396 SLG and 98 OPS+ compare rather hideously to his career averages of .315 / .386 / .459 and 121. And while he has always been at the top of the list of Yankees I want to see at the plate to keep a rally going, he has slipped – for me at least – to number 3 or 4 on that list (look up the clutch and RISP stats of Damon and Abreu if you doubt the sanity of this).
In the last two years Jeter’s DPs have seemed more critically timed and certainly more frequent than ever before – he had more last year (21) than ever before, and with 16 already this year (placing him second to only Vlad Guerrero in the AL in GIDPs), he appears on his way to matching or topping that ignominious feat. And while it is strictly anecdotal and not backed by stats, I am certain that I have never seen Jeter make as many base-running mistakes as I have seen this year having watched every game. There is plenty of speculation that he has been playing hurt (both leg and hand) for most of the year. But it’s hard not to wonder whether there is something more inevitable and irreversible going on.
Still, Jeter’s stats with RISP (.301, .362, .408, .770 OPS) and with RISP and 2 outs (.326, .404, .435, .839) are nothing to sneeze at even though they are slightly lower than his career averages in such situations. And there are of course two months to go in the regular season during which he may boost all of his numbers.
But the performance gap between Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez in all but championship rings is only growing and it makes it hard to consider this Jeter’s team anymore. A-Rod continues to pile on gawdy numbers – 1st in the AL in BA (.326) and slugging (.607), and third in OBP (.407). His reputation for choking is overblown and ignores – for example – an extraordinary 2007 season in which he not only won the MVP, but also was a killer late in games (9th inning stats: .452 BA, .549 OBP, 1.095 SLG, 1.644 OPS) and at crucial times (RISP stats: .333, .460, .678, 1.138). But we all also know that the reputation is not wholly without merit. His numbers in those categories this year are not impressive and other than the 2004 ALDS, his Yankee post-season stats are tremendously disappointing.
So here we have it: A-Rod’s team. Racking up some impressive numbers. Just not any championships. Yet.