It is a moment that every baseball fan of my generation remembers vividly: On September 20, 1998, in the morning before the Baltimore Orioles' final home game of the season, news broke throughout the baseball world that Cal Ripken Jr, would not be in the lineup for the Orioles that evening.
Ripken decided that he could no longer contribute to the team on an everyday basis, and so he took himself out of the lineup before becoming an embarrassment to himself, his teammates and to the game of baseball. He ended his record 2,632 games played streak on his own terms.
Notably, and perhaps importantly, as Ripken came out of the dugout that evening and tipped his cap to the home fans, one of the players saluting Ripken in the visiting team's dugout was none other than the New York Yankees' superstar shortstop Derek Jeter.
I wonder if he remembers that evening.
In professional sports, there is nothing sadder than the aging superstar struggling to continue to play the game that once came effortlessly.
The struggle at the end of Stan Musial's storied career was well chronicled at the time. After two or three down years, Musial had a tremendous year at the age of 41 (.330/.416/.508) which convinced him to come back for one more year at 42, and it was a disaster (.255/.325/.404).
The same thing happened to Edgar Martinez, who was so recharged by going .294/.406/.489 at the age of 40 that he came back for another year at the age of 41 and slogged through the worst season of his career before retiring.
Babe Ruth stayed a year too long and ended up hitting .181 with a .789 OPS over the last 28 games of his career in 1935 with the Boston Braves. Hank Aaron stayed a year too long and hit .229 with a .684 OPS at the age of 42. Mickey Mantle stayed a year too long and famously let his career batting average dip below .300, something he regretted for the rest of his career.
If one were to make an All-Star team of great players who knew when it was time to hang it up, and an All-Star team of guys who hung on too long, the clubhouse for the Hung On Too Long team would be overflowing, and the clubhouse for the Knew When to Get Out team would barely have enough guys to field a full squad.
In 1950, New York Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio hit .301 with a league-leading .585 slugging percentage. He took 80 walks and struck out just 33 times. He also hit 32 home runs, drove in 122 RBI and scored 114 runs in 139 games. It was a tremendous season for the Yankee Clipper, and at the age of 35 he looked set to play at least three or four more years.
The following season, DiMaggio struggled, and at the age of 36, he hung it up.
Mike Schmidt won the NL MVP in 1986 and enjoyed a monster year in 1987. He struggled with injuries in 1988 and had his worst year in a decade, and 42 games into the 1989 season, he hung it up at the age of 39.
And then, of course, there's Sandy Koufax, who retired at the top of his game at the age of 30, no longer willing to go through the incredibly painful, torturous routine he had to go through to get his arm ready for each game.
One wonders whether there are biographies of DiMaggio, Schmidt or Koufax anywhere in the New York Yankees clubhouse.
Professional athletes cannot be blamed for hanging on too long at the end of their careers. This behavior is a product of their egos, and not in a negative way. There is not a single athlete in professional sports who does not owe his success, at least on some level, to having the audacity to believe sincerely that they were better than everyone around them.
And in the case of the greatest players to the play the game, they were absolutely correct. Their egos were well-earned, and actually being better than the rest of the players around them, they were entitled to their egos.
But at the end of the day, almost to a man, the physical abilities fade much sooner than the egos.
And who are we to say otherwise? Who are we to tell these great athletes, these larger than life legends, this mythical monoliths that they have to quit the thing they've been doing their entire lives better than anyone else before they are ready to?
Of Derek Jeter, we can hold these truths to be self-evident:
Jeter is one of the greatest shortstops of all time.
He is one of the greatest Yankees of all time.
He will be in the Hall of Fame someday, and it won't take two ballots to get him there.
Derek Jeter is also one of the greatest winners of all time, one of the greatest postseason players ever and one of the greatest clutch performers of all time.
These statements are absolutely true, and nothing that happens from now until the end of the 2011 season or the end of Derek Jeter's career, whenever that may be, will change that.
But, for the time being, in the 2011 season, he can also observe some other truths:
Jeter is having the worst season of his career. Despite the opinions of the people in charge of voting for Gold Gloves, Jeter has long been a liability with the glove, and for the first time in his career he has become a liability at the plate.
And then there's this:
Jeter has played in 81 of the Yankees' 102 games this season. In games in which Jeter appeared, the Yankees are 45-36, for a winning percentage of .555; in games in which Jeter has not appeared, the Yankees are 16-5, for a winning percentage of .761.
But wait, there's more: on June 13, Jeter got hurt and went on the disabled list. The Yankees were 2.5 games out of first place on that date. With Jeter out, the Yankees went on a run and by July 2 they were back in first place and up by 2.5 games.
When Jeter returned on July 4, the Yanks were up by 1.5 games. With Jeter back, the Yankees dropped back into second place and have been there ever since.
A funny thing happened to Cal Ripken Jr, after he took himself out of the lineup for the Orioles. In 1998, for the year, Ripken hit .271 with a .721 OPS. The following year, playing only 86 games, Ripken had a resurrection: he hit .340 with a .368 on-base percentage and a .952 OPS.
And, in 86 games, he managed to hit four more home runs and the same number of doubles as he had the previous season in 161 games.
By ending his streak, and relegating himself to a part-time role, Ripken went from being a liability in the daily lineup to being an asset off the bench and on occasional starting dates.
Is this what we could be looking for from Jeter?
To be sure, there are absolutely scenarios in which Jeter is still valuable. Jeter's decline has been marked by a declining effectiveness against right-handed pitching (.250/.298/.313), but he is hitting .329 with a .430 on-base percentage off of left-handed pitchers.
Jeter has also been absolutely on fire when leading off a game (.367) and leading off an inning (.324), so using him as a pinch-hitter to lead off late innings when trailing could be very useful.
If Jeter were to be taken out, or rather to take himself out, of the everyday starting lineup, he would have the chance, like Ripken before him, to start games or to be inserted into game situations where he would be in the best position to help the team, rather than continuing to hamper the team on a day-to-day basis.
Because at the end of the day, it is beginning to appear as though for the first time in 15 years, the New York Yankees are in a better position to win games and ultimately get to the playoffs without Derek Jeter in the lineup every day.
At the same time, Jeter may not be ready to come out of the lineup.
And, like so many great players before him, he may not be ready until it is too late.