Though stint with Yankees was brief, O's manager saw greatness in captain
NEW YORK -- Another 90 minutes would pass before the Core Four would reassemble one more time on the Yankee Stadium turf that had been their primary stage. It was one level down and back under the third-base stands that Buck Showalter began singing one of his country favorites, a hit for the late George Jones entitled "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes?"
Passion, energy and joy were evident in Showalter's voice, not so much because the song was a personal favorite but because it had come to his mind as the Yankees were about to salute their heroes -- in particular, Derek Jeter.
"That one's perfect for him, isn't it?" the fomer Yankees manager said. "There's no one who can."
Jeter was the focus -- even for the opposing manager -- before Monday's home opener. The shortstop's intention to retire following this season had already become old news. But he hadn't been to the home office since he shared his decision with his public. Because Jeter is who he is -- the most accomplished member of the most accomplished franchise in American sports over the last 20 years -- his decision warranted attention all over again.
So in the hours preceding the Yankees' 4-2 victory over the Orioles, Showalter served a dual role -- leader of the enemy forces and Yankees historian; specialty Derek Sanderson Jeter. He reminisced comfortably about The Captain, he embraced the topic and the opportunity to praise the player he managed for merely 15 games 19 years ago.
And Showalter put in words what we all recognize even now, 12 months before Jeter's departure will be felt most readily: the Yankees will have a shortstop next season, they will have a No. 2 hitter. And -- who can say? -- they might even have a captain. But Jeter's shoes will remain unfilled. They will be no more in play than his mothballed No. 2 Yankees uniform. It goes without singing.
The replacement parts have yet to be identified, much less manufactured or acquired. Showalter knows as well as anyone there will be successors, even a player identified as a replacement for Jeter; but no duplication of the Yankees' current shortstop can occur. No chance. The wonderful malapropism spoken by one-time Mets manager Wes Westrum applies to Jeter as much as anyone in the game's history: "After they made him, they threw away the molding."
Showalter is quite aware of that. He was there to witness Jeter's big league debut in 1995, and there again on Monday afternoon when the Yankees marked the final opening home game of Jeter's pure-Yankees career. And, in the interim, the Orioles' manager has seen so much of Jeter's majesty, magnificence and magic that he said -- with tongue partly in cheek -- he wouldn't have been disappointed on Monday if the Yankees' starting lineup had excluded the five characters that, for the better part of 20 years, have spelled a-d-v-an-t-a-g-e Y-a-n-k-e-e-s.
Showalter recalled how he had noticed early on that Jeter had "alert eyes," a quite useful attribute for a middle infielder. He spoke of Jeter's vocabulary -- selfless words. The vertical pronoun, so prevalent in today's game, shows no signs of overuse in Jeter's speech. Showalter noted Jeter's wall-to-wall goodness and fascinating ability to make contributions at critical junctures as well as a full awareness of "what weight his words carry."
Musial is still identified as the perfect warrior in St. Louis. Is Jeter not at least comparable? To this generation of Yankees and their fans, he, too, is The Man.
And so Jeter will be hailed at nearly every turn -- in the Bronx and elsewhere. He appreciates the support, though he qualifies his appreciation: "I'll try to enjoy it."
It can get in the way, Jeter says. He'd been cheered loudly before his at-bat in the first inning.
"That's why I struck out," he said, smiling.
Jeter was applauded by folks nearby in the third inning after he had passed first base and turned to return to the dugout. He had grounded into a double play, and that, too, prompted appreciation.
"Maybe they were cheering hustle," Jeter said, noting that a run had scored on the play. "Turn it into a positive" was his directive. He does that regularly.
It's going to be that way for Jeter until his career hit total, now the highest in history for a right-handed batter in the American League, becomes fixed at a figure in excess of 3,321. Each team that hosts the Yankees this season and perhaps some that don't will salute him. He elicits appreciation and generosity in folks, even enemies and their supporters.
No question Fenway will embrace him -- not this month, perhaps, maybe not in the first days of August. But the Yankees' regular season ends in Boston on Sept. 28. No matter what's at stake in Games 160-162, Fenway will genuflect in the direction of the player who routinely foiled its tenants for years.
Or it might not happen at all. Ted Williams announced during the 1960 season his intention to retire after the season. His announcement prompted a baseball fan in New York, Emil Hirdt, to purchase tickets to the Red Sox's final Friday night game, Sept. 30, so his young sons, Steve and Peter, could one day claim to have seen Mr. Theodore Ballgame play.
Good plan. But the Sox's final series was at Yankee Stadium, and Williams, after hitting a home run in his final at-bat at Fenway on Sept. 28, chose to forgo the series in New York. The Hirdt family lost, the Yankees won. Steve Hirdt, now the executive vice president of the Elias Sports Bureau, recalls his disappointment and having witnessed a walk-off decision accomplished by what he identified as a "potpourri" of Red Sox unknowns.
"It could happen again," Hirdt said on Monday. "If Jeter doesn't go to Boston in September."
Emil Hirdt's intention to afford his boys the opportunity to see Williams -- even if, at their young age, they might not have appreciated all he had been -- provides another means of measuring the high regard in which Jeter is held.
It is a measure of the man, the celebrity, the hero that a doting father will bring his toddler son to the ballpark so that after six or seven more summers, the lad can know he saw something special, someone extraordinary.
"Of course," Showalter said, "if I had a young son, I'd take him to see Derek play. ... My father took me to see Mickey [Mantle] when I was 3. I still feel privileged now."