As you may have heard, the Yankees are retiring Derek Jeter’s number on Sunday. ESPN’s coverage of the ceremony — and the subsequent game, of course — will begin at a surprisingly early 8:00 a.m. EST. The first pitch of the game between the Astros and Yankees, two of the powerhouse teams in the American League, is scheduled for 7:35 at night. Sunday Night Baseball usually kicks off at 8, but the Yankees got ESPN to agree to moving the game up to give the pre-game ceremonies (and theoretically the game itself) a larger audience and reach.
Of course, a player can’t have his number retired unless he himself is retired, and indeed, Jeter hasn’t suited up since 2014. His retirement was kind of a big deal, as you likely remember. It turned into a media bonanza that facilitated the sale of many tickets and even more merchandise. Jeter struggled that year to a -0.1 WAR and the Yankees just barely missed the playoffs. He started at shortstop in the All-Star Game. Even when he clearly had overstayed his welcome as a productive player, he still represented a massive source of revenue for the Yankees and for the sport.
MLB social media has spent the week doing a tournament of Jeter’s best moments under the #Jeets16 hashtag. Budweiser just put out an ad that uses the number retirement as its inspiration. The league, and a corporation as huge as Anheuser-Busch, wouldn’t be doing a Jeter-shaped media blitz if there wasn’t profit to be made here. And there is, of course, seeing as Jeter was the most recognizable figure in baseball, and one of the most recognizable people in all of sports, for nearly two decades.
There’s still something a little strange, though, about having this much hullabaloo about a retired player. The Sunday night game features two strong teams chock full of exciting young talent. Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and George Springer will all be taking part in this game. There’s absolutely room to celebrate both Jeter’s past and those players’ present and future. Given the pre-game focus on Jeter, it will be interesting to see how much of the game broadcast is spent discussing him and not the game itself. It could go some way to revealing ESPN’s production interests.
And herein lies the issue. There’s nothing wrong with honoring Jeter. He’s one of the greatest Yankees ever, and a slam-dunk first-ballot Hall of Fame candidate. Much has been made of the Yankees’ habit of retiring number after number, but Jeter absolutely deserves this. Jeter didn’t become a legend in the game — and, more importantly, in the media — just because of his level of play, though. Jeter’s persona was nearly the Platonic ideal of what the institution of baseball wants its players to be. He was a handsome straight-laced leader of men, the angel on the left shoulder to Alex Rodriguez’s devil on the right. He was amiable with the media and almost never created trouble (despite a few gift baskets). His boy-scout personality made him a hit with the New York beat, and a welcome reprieve from the controversy of Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, and Mark McGwire. And, to his credit, he wasn’t afraid to make fun of himself every now and then.
Jeter was, in essence, the golden boy. That made him a media darling. That and his excellent level of play made him the biggest star in New York since Reggie Jackson. I was raised a Yankees fan, and I grew up at the altar of Jeter. He was, and remains still, one of my favorites. Any trip to Yankee Stadium will show you just how many Jeter shirts and jerseys are still worn to the game. There’s absolutely a need for the team to be honoring one of their greats.
That said, the league’s attempt to promote the event to fans of other teams feels odd. It seems like a safe, yet short-sighted, allocation of resources — especially as the Sunday night game represents the week’s marquee broadcast. While the league appears intent on celebrating the past, it might came at some risk to acknowledging the present and future talent on the field itself.
For all of his talent, Jeter wasn’t the best player of his era. When Rodriguez set foot in the Bronx, he wasn’t even the best player on his team. The reverence for Jeter likely wouldn’t exist had he played in a different market, or hadn’t kept his nose quite so clean. The intangibles and leadership he provided to the team were undeniably invaluable.
Yet Jeter represents an ideal that is to some outdated. Baseball’s fight against personality in its players is counterintuitive to its growth and its appeal to youth. To be clear: this isn’t to condemn Jeter for how he conducted himself. But personality and exuberance make the game fun, and the game is entertainment. Furthermore, the emphasis placed on the promotion of the Jeter ceremony by the league shows a reluctance to embrace the youth and vibrance currently blossoming in the game. I expect this from the Yankees, who market themselves as a bastion of prestige and deep-rooted excellence. They always have, and always will, present themselves as the old guard and the shining city on a hill. The league, and in turn ESPN, are buying in full-stop this week.
In the grand scheme of things, a week of full-on Jeter immersion is just a blip. However, it speaks to the larger idea that baseball is a game and an institution stuck in the past. Sunday night’s game, and indeed this entire series, should be a showcase of the game’s future. If all goes well, players like Correa, Judge, and Sanchez will shape the game alongside the Trouts and Harpers of the world. The game is clearly crossing a threshold into a new generation of stars. Baseball’s story of the week is about the most old-fashioned of stars of the older generation.
There’s nothing wrong with honoring Derek Jeter. In fact, it would be a shame if he weren’t honored in some fashion. But the decision to carpet-bomb social media and television with promotion for the retirement of his number seems to indicate a strategic error. The game is moving on from the old-fashioned. That’s for the better. This week has been the perfect symbol for how very slow and reluctant the league is to accept that.
Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.