For many, the 2014 Major League Baseball season won't be just another season. It will also be a time to bid farewell to one of the most beloved players baseball has ever known: Derek Jeter.
Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, however, won't just be bidding farewell to a beloved player. In seeing the New York Yankees captain out the door, he'll also be bidding farewell to a fellow shortstop and a man he's "very proud" to call a friend.
That's a sentiment "The Wizard" expressed while discussing a variety of Jeter topics with Bleacher Report on Tuesday in a phone interview meant to promote a campaign he's working on with Budweiser. Regarding Jeter's retirement announcement, Smith said he was surprised by the timing of it, but probably not as surprised as the rest of us.
"As we get older, that time comes for all of us," said Smith. And he would know. Like Jeter is about to, Smith also played into his 40s, playing his last season in 1996 at the age of 41.
Of course, it's no secret that there's more than just age at work in Jeter's situation. A fractured left ankle suffered in the 2012 playoffs kept him out of action until July in 2013. That and a host of other injuries limited him to just 17 games. He admitted in his retirement announcement that 2013 "was a tough one."
Smith sympathizes: "When you get as injured as he has late in his career, it makes it a little bit tougher."
With his immediate future somewhat uncertain, it's no wonder many are taking the time to look back at Jeter's best moments. When asked if he has any favorites of his own, Smith said it was good enough for him simply to watch Jeter over the years.
"Just watching the way that he went about his job every day," said Smith. "He was very, very professional. He did his job every day. He was just one of those blue-collar guys who put his time in, and it paid off. He’s been a great asset to the game of baseball, and I wish him nothing but the best."
Since he became a full-time player in 1996, 2013 was only the third season in which Jeter failed to play in at least 148 games. Along the way, he's racked up a .312 career average, won five World Series and has been involved in hardly any controversies.
To that last point, that Jeter has been able to do so while spending his entire career in the Big Apple is an aspect of his legend that Smith doesn't think should be taken lightly.
"New York is not an easy place to play," said The Wizard. "But Derek is one of those special people who had what it took to play there. He kept his nose clean, always said the right thing and just has been very, very professional."
And this, for Smith, demands a shoutout to two people in particular: "I think that we have to say that his parents probably get a lot of credit for that. He had a great upbringing and has just been nothing but class."
Having thrived in New York for 19 years (and counting), Smith is of the mind that Jeter doesn't have anything else to prove. In light of that, he's in the same boat that pretty much all of us are in regarding Jeter's upcoming farewell tour: He's earned it.
"Very few players have the opportunity to take what is termed 'a tour,' " said Smith, whose own farewell tour didn't begin until after he announced his retirement midway through the 1996 season. "And with what he’s accomplished in New York, with the way he’s represented Major League Baseball, with his professionalism, his dignity, his pride and his honor, Jeter is certainly deserving of it."
Five years after Jeter's tour ends will come another, much higher validation of his career. It's a given that he's going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, just as recently retired teammate Mariano Rivera will be when his time comes.
And if you ask Smith, these two might finally do something no other Hall of Famer has done yet.
"I think he and Mariano probably would be the first two guys, if [ever] we were to have a chance to see someone making it as a unanimous choice for the Hall of Fame," said Smith.
For now, Jeter already has a special place in history in Smith's eyes. When asked to name his shortstop Mount Rushmore, Smith was quick to include him.
"Well, of course Cal would be on there. Derek would be on there. Omar Vizquel would be on there. The guy I got traded for actually would be one of those guys because he was a true five-tool player," said Smith.
Also, naturally: "And of course, I’d put myself on there."
If you're scoring at home, that's Cal Ripken Jr., Jeter, Vizquel, Garry Templeton and Smith himself. You'll have to visualize The Wizard's shortstop Mount Rushmore on your own, but statistically it looks like this:
Of the numbers up there, only Jeter's aren't set in stone yet. For what it's worth, he is within range of Smith's career WAR. One last great season in 2014 will put him right there with The Wizard among the greats to ever play shortstop in WAR's eyes.
That's a journey that Jeter will start on April 1 when he and the Yankees take on the Astros in Houston. Opening Day for the rest of Major League Baseball is the day before on March 31.
And if Smith and his beer-brewing buddies have their way, that day will be a national holiday. As in, for real this time.
As far as Smith and Budweiser are concerned, Opening Day has gone long enough without being declared an official national holiday. Smith says it might as well be considering that many Americans already treat it like one.
"There are 22 million Americans who at some point in time have played hooky from work and school. So that in and of itself makes it an unofficial holiday," said Smith of Opening Day. He added that he's not asking for much, as merely getting Opening Day proclaimed "as some type of day of observance would really fit the bill."
Smith will be on the campaign trail for the next 30 days as he and Budweiser attempt to collect 100,000 signatures on a petition at Budweiser.com/OpeningDay. And while only fans 21 and older can sign it, the White House is required to respond if the signature quota is met within the 30-day window.
"Hopefully we can get that done by March 26," said Smith of the 100,000 signatures, "and I’ll be able to take them right to the White House steps and give them to the president."
As of this writing, the petition had over 9,000 signatures on it. If you're of proper age and would like to see Opening Day declared an official national holiday, you know what to do.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com. Quotes obtained firsthand.
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