Derek Jeter played his last game official last night at Yankee Stadium. There may be some old timers game in his future, but last night he capped his career, and he did it in style. The season-long celebration may have seemed over the top at moments, but Jeter really did deserve it. As have a few others who may not have been as lucky to play in New York, on high payroll, high revenue teams.
But what Jeter did in his long career, besides stringing together many seasons of unmatched statistics and great post-season runs, was to respect the game. Even last night, with emotions running very very high, he kept his head in the at-bat. His focus was unmatched. He saw a pitch and he sent it the other way, as only Jeter can do. With all the hoopla surrounding that last inning, he NEVER became bigger than the game. He showed winning was really the most important thing to him. It wasn’t just lip-service.
And that wasn’t something he added to his brand in his later years. It was something from day one.
Of course, it helps to come up in an organization so steeped in tradition. It helps to show up at spring training with legends of the game when you are 19 years old. You know your aren’t that important in terms of the history of the game.
Today, there is social media everywhere telling young players that they are important and putting them on a bigger stage than they may be ready for. The signals are all there telling them that they are more important than others. Jeter started his career without any of that. He knew his role early. Would it have turned out differently if the media scrutiny would have been there? Very hard to know.
But from day one Jeter respected the game, and respected those around him. That is the biggest lesson from last night. If you do that, the game will pay you back ten-fold.
Brett Gardner, one of the few Yankees who is getting on base regularly, has a melt down on Tuesday night. While very out of character for the Yankees outfielder, the argument at home plate on a borderline strike call got the player tossed out of the game. He should have been upset, the bases were loaded with two out, and the Bombers were losing 6-0. A good hit would have put them back in the game.
He was tossed immediately upon throwing down his helmet, and Manager Joe Girardi let him get his money’s worth as he was already ejected. Might as well let the passion do what it could do for the Yankees case, so that Girardi didn’t have to.
After the game, Gardenhire spoke with reporters about what he perceived, still, as a terrible call. When asked if he would behave the same again if he had it to do over, Gardner said he would according to this Mark Feinsand piece. In theory, Gardner had 5 innings to calm down and to reflect. He had now seen the pitch on replay multiple times one would think. And yet, as one of the best hitters in the line-up he still felt like blowing up was the right thing to do.
He is wrong. While making a point to the umpire about a strike zone could help hitters that come later, taking yourself out of the line-up does not. It doesn’t help the manager. It doesn’t help the team. And while his actual blow-up was inspired by competitive spirit and passion for the game. The comments after were not, or shouldn’t have been. Those innings after ejection should be used to think through really what is the best way to help the team, not to stew about how you were right and the umpire was wrong. It’s a time to determine what would have been the best outcome.
As a fan, you like to see Gardner’s fire. You like to know in the waning days of a lost season that someone in that uniform still cares- is still fired up to WIN. But, as fans, you also have to hope that the people you root for are growing up each moment, gaining wisdom and learning to deal with their issues better each day. Gardner answered quickly about doing it all again. What he, and many other players, need to begin to do is develop a ‘how would I be better next time’ even when it comes to these moments. Only then can a fan and a teammate feel good about the best hitter getting thrown out of a game.
AJ Burnett responded quickly to a question this week about his future. He had just finished pitching, fighting a losing battle against the Mariners and his ability to locate. He is in a stretch of not much success, after a start that had him as one of the best pitchers on the Phillies staff. Someone asked if he would pitch next year, to fufill the terms of his 2-yr contract.
He said, “probably not.”
Its a quick simple response. It isn’t written in stone. And yet, it is a quick answer that was written about a lot the next day. It also will be written about a lot this off-season as he and the team struggle to determine their future.
He didn’t need to answer that. But he was emotional, thinking about his performance that night and not really thinking about what the question really was asking. He’ll be asked that at least another dozen times before the season is over, and then more in the off-season if reporters can get a hold of him. His agent will have to field a few of those too.
Its hard to remember, in those moments, that the player can’t be held accountable for answering distant far off questions like that. He’s thinking about if he gets another start this year. He is worrying about what this means to his teammates. He is trying to understand how he, with all his experience and talent, couldn’t find the strike zone. Thoughts of next year aren’t even there, yet. Its his job to stand and answer questions, so routine that he almost is on auto-pilot. He knows what the questions will be for the most part; How did he feel tonight? How did he feel when x happened? What is different now from the beginning of the season? And so when one comes that he doesn’t expect, he answers it without careful consideration. And yet that is the question that will mean the most, both to the person who asked it, and to the fans, teammates, front office and other writers in the months to come.
Auto pilot is a difficult thing to turn off, when you have been doing this as long as Burnett has. But yet the focus that makes one a successful athlete can’t be turned off outside the lines, no matter how much time you have been through the drill.
Are you playing next year? That’s a question for after the season. That is a question for the last day. A reporter can ask a question any time, but a player needs to answer it only when he is prepared to answer it.
One alternate career path that a player can use to make money while playing baseball is to eventually go over to Japan or Korea to play. It isn’t for everybody both because of the cultural/travel differences but also because in many ways it is a different game. And the thing that may be surprising to many US fans is that not everyone who wants to can go.
Japanese teams have a rule that only 4 foreign born players can sit on the roster at any one time. Those foreign born can come from the US, South America, the Caribbean, or even another Asian country. The competition for those spots is fierce, and as we have seen from the World Baseball Classic, Japan has some guys that can play.
Japanese teams have scouts that work for them to scout players in the US, and most of that scouting is done at the AAA level. Players that have expired all their minor league time, are good enough to get some Major league time each season for a few years but aren’t good enough to hold a Major League spot for an entire season might be candidates.
Players have to have a good mindset for it though. They have to be willing to go through formalities that may not exist in the US, due to cultural differences. They also have to show they have the mindset that they can adapt their game on the field to the type of baseball that the Japanese, or Koreans for that matter, play.
If they can do that, then there is good money to be made. Money that is probably better than what they can earn even in one season at the Major League level, depending on the player.
Japanese teams won’t take a player that has tattoos showing outside his uniform, especially the full sleeves. Tattoos are marks of the mafia and other crime ridden populations to the Japanese, and not for an honorable baseball player. No matter how good a player is, teams won’t take him to play in Japan if he is all tatted up.
Just a few things we never think about when we hear a player is playing in Japan.
Last week, I was lucky enough to visit a couple of spots in the Appalachian League, and I kinda fell in love. The idyllic nature of the league, with small parks and communities of fans seems ideal to me. Granted the ammenities aren’t too fancy, and the parks aren’t built for interaction between players and fans, but each fan is very close to the action.
Now the Appalachian League is very remote, and very community based. The teams sit in clusters, and fans move between the fields of the all the teams located in their cluster. They also all know each other, and notice when someone is late or misses a game all together. Its a little like Bull Durham, with some characters surrounding the players. It also is for many players, their first shot a professional baseball. Some of these players were drafted a year earlier, but for whatever reason (injury, surgery, maturation, college language barriers) didn’t start playing in pro-ball last season. Many of these guys won’t make it to the big leagues, but a few will. And their journey starts right here.
The two parks featured in these very short videos are about an hours drive apart, on the Virginia/West Virginia border.
The first is the rookie affiliate of the Seattle Mariners home, in Pulaski, Va.
The second is in my top places to watch a game at the minor league level. I hope you can see just how beautiful Bowen Field in Bluefield, WV is. This is a Toronto Blue Jays affiliate.