Jeter Day signals end of an era for Yankees
Celebration of captain evokes memories of when Mantle was honored in Bronx
NEW YORK -- The ceremony honoring Derek Jeter on Sunday at Yankee Stadium marked not only the pending end of a career, but certainly the conclusion of another great Yankees era.
It reminded of another day across 161st Street at another version of Yankee Stadium more than 46 years ago, the day Mickey Mantle was feted. Like Jeter now, Mantle's retirement at the end of the 1968 season ushered out an incredible era of Yankees success.
But on Sunday, as Jeter told the crowd, he still had a game to play.
"It was very strange," Jeter said about the ceremony after the Yankees dropped a crucial 2-0 decision to the Royals on a pair of unearned runs. "We have three weeks left in the season and we're trying to win games. It was a very unique situation. I don't know if there have been many people in that situation. It's kind of tough to explain how you feel."
During Mantle's 18 seasons -- when there were no playoffs and just the pennant winners from both leagues met in the World Series -- the Yankees went to the Fall Classic 12 times and won seven. Jeter's Yanks won five World Series titles, seven American League pennants and went to the playoffs 16 times in his first full 18 seasons.
Those are the obvious comparables and, in his era, Jeter is the only remaining vestige of all that.
"Derek has been in a situation here with the Yankees where they've been in so many playoffs and World Series, and he's had a chance to shine and he's done it," said Dave Winfield, the former Yankee who joined fellow Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and basketball great Michael Jordan among the special guests at the ceremony. "Everybody here, you're going to see the end of an era -- a guy who just played at the top of his game for a long time for a winning organization and came through when it counted. You won't see it again in this generation. You just won't."
That's what many people said when Mantle retired, and to a certain extent, they were right. Save for the Reggie Jackson-led teams that won the World Series in 1977-78, the Yanks didn't have that kind of sustained success until Jeter rose through the ranks, coming up from the club's Minor League system for good with a 15-game taste spread across the 1995 season.
If there was a Core Four during Mantle's days, it would include Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and, in the end, Roger Maris. Mantle, Berra and Ford played 11 years together. And just like in the case of Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada -- and now Jeter -- the team's success began to wane as those significant players ended their careers.
In Jeter's case, the Yankees haven't won the World Series or a pennant since 2009 and are facing the prospect of missing the postseason for the second consecutive year for the first time since the mostly Winfield-led Yanks missed the playoffs every non-strike year from 1982-93.
As Jeter, now 40, has grown older and the core has diluted around him, he has suffered the same fate as Jordan, who won six National Basketball Association titles with the Bulls but didn't find the same team success when he returned to play for the Wizards.
"It was a lot different for me," Jordan said. "When I was out there, I had to affect only 12 players. Derek, he had to rely on so many of his other teammates. For the team to be successful, so many other players have to do their jobs. From a leadership standpoint, you have to be a leader of men, and I think he's done that. The [three] guys he played with throughout his whole career can vouch for that. Winning thrives on great leadership, and I think he's a great leader."
Jeter has often said that it's much tougher to win championships in comparison to the days Mantle played because of the current playoff system. Jeter added that it's hard to compare the impact he and Jordan had on their individual teams.
"He constantly tells me that he has six [rings] and I have five," Jeter said. "So that's a reminder."
Mantle's seven eclipsed them both. But similarly, the winning ended as age and gravity began to take its toll.
With Mantle's knees and physical condition deteriorating, the Yankees last won the World Series during that era in 1962 and the pennant in '64. The final four seasons with Mantle in uniform began a period during which the Yanks didn't win the pennant again until 1976.
There was no designated hitter in Mantle's final season of 1968, when he batted .237 with 18 homers and 54 RBIs in 144 games. All of those games were played at first base after he was no longer mobile enough to roam center field in the original Yankee Stadium, where the outfield was akin to a cow pasture.
Mantle decided to retire at the end of that season as his lifetime batting average dipped under .300 to .298, but the Yankees prevailed on him to hold the announcement until the following Spring Training. There was no Jeter-esque final tour from city to city, and Mantle wasn't honored with his own day until June 8, 1969.
A crowd of 61,157 said goodbye at the old Stadium, where Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio played. Mantle received a 10-minute standing ovation, and after the ceremony was over, he was driven around the warning track in a golf cart to the adoring cries of the assembled fans.
"The last time around the park, that gave me goose pimples," Mantle said that day. "But I didn't cry. I felt like it. Maybe tonight when I go to bed, I'll think about it. I wish that could happen to every man in America. I think the fans know how much I think about them -- all over the country. It was the most nervous I've ever been but the biggest thrill."
Like Mantle, Jeter on Sunday paid homage to Yankees fans as the Bleacher Creatures led the chant of his name. There was no such thing as Bleacher Creatures in Mantle's day.
"Lastly and most importantly, I want to thank you the fans," Jeter told the sold-out crowd of 48,110 on Sunday. "Anyone who's here today, anyone who's home watching, anyone who's been here to watch during the last 20 seasons, thank you very much. You guys have all watched me grow up over the last 20 years. I watched you, too. Some of you guys are getting old, too. But I want to thank you for helping me feel like a kid for the last 20 years."
The ceremony packed a different emotional jolt than Mantle Day some 46 years ago. Perhaps it was because the Yanks still have 21 games to play and a playoff spot is still there to be taken.
Back then, the Yankees were playing through their fifth consecutive pennant-less season and the fans already were well aware of what had been lost when No. 7 hung up the pinstripes for good. With the departure of No. 2, that reality is only to come.
"The fans are the ones that made this fun," Jeter said after the game. "It's been an extremely fun 20 seasons."