This past baseball off-season, Derek Jeter engaged in contract talks with the New York Yankees on what could be the final contract he signs in his career. Ever the polite and classy professional, Jeter never returned volley on the negative publicity dished out by his General Manager Brian Cashman and co-owner of the Yankees Hank Steinbrenner. Eventually, Jeter did express his displeasure during the press conference announcing the re-signing of their captain. One thing is certain, one day Jeter will hang up his cleats, but will he do so after moving out of his position as Yankees’ shortstop. How will the end of this successful era end? A quick look at other aging New York athletes will give a few clues.
In 1992, the New York Rangers acquired the captain of the Edmonton Oilers Mark Messier. Messier, a five time Stanley Cup champion, was to be the perfect man to win the Rangers their first Stanley Cup in 52 years. Messier would lead the Rangers to the best record in hockey and win the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP, but would not win the Stanley Cup. The following year, the team finished in last place and Messier took a lot of criticism. In May of 1994, he declared his team would win a key game facing elimination, and delivered a hat trick that would win the game and make him immortal in New York sports. A month later, he scored the goal that won the Rangers the Stanley Cup, but after three more successful years, Messier left New York as a free agent. During his negotiation, MSG President Dave Checketts proclaimed, “How long do I have to pay for the 94 cup?” Messier would return to a video tribute from the Rangers and a hero’s welcome from the fans in November of 97, but would don a Ranger uniform again in 2000 after three years in Vancouver. This time would not be as successful. The Rangers would not make the playoffs in Messier’s final four seasons and the highlights were personal highlights for Messier as he’d pass Gordie Howe to leave only Wayne Gretzky ahead of him in points. The decision of when to step aside was left to Messier, not by General Manager/Coach Glen Sather, as fans eagerly tried to nudge him into coaching. Messier wasn’t the player once was and never topped 43 points in his final three seasons in New York.
No one could argue that the acquisition of Mike Piazza in 1998 from the Florida Marlins was the most important for the New York Mets since 1983. It’s likely on the short list of best acquisitions in the organizations history. Piazza would lead the Mets to the playoff twice in 1999 and 2000, having MVP-type seasons in both. In 99, his .303, 40 HR’s and then team record 124 RBI’s was among the best statistical season in Mets history. In 2000, he finished third in the MVP voting with his .324, 38 HR’s and 113 RBI’s. Piazza was the superstar the Mets lacked since Darryl Strawberry. His presence in the Mets lineup was critical as their lone big bat, but in 2003 he began his decline, aided by wear and tear due to catching and tearing his groin dodging a pitch. In 2004, the Mets tried him at first base as well as catching, but the experiment was a failure as Piazza couldn’t adjust to the infield. In 2005, his power numbers dropped below 20 for the first time in his career when he played a full season. He was dropped to seventh in the order often by manager Willie Randolph and Piazza saw the writing on the wall that the Mets were ready to move on. Piazza returned to Shea Stadium in 2006 as a member of the San Diego Padres. He received a standing ovation by the Mets crowd and took Pedro Martinez deep for two homeruns. For most of the season, Piazza hit .300, but would finish at .283, proving he could still catch and lead a team back to the playoffs. In 2008, he’d retire after a year with the Oakland A’s.
Perhaps the path Jeter will walk is one the he’s already seen from his former teammate Bernie Williams. Williams was slowly making his name in the baseball world until the 1996 AL Divisional Series. After losing Game 1 to Texas, Williams hit 3 Hrs and hit a walk off homerun to beat the Orioles in the ALCS. Williams’ career numbers from 1996-2002, he averaged 143 games, .323 batting average, 25 Hrs and 103 RBI’s. He was always in the heart of the lineup and was known for his great clutch hitting. However, in 2003 Williams’ batting average dropped to .263, which would be his highest average as an everyday starter for the rest of his career. Over the next three years, he averaged 136 games, .253 batting, 16 Hrs and 66 RBIs. It was becoming obvious Williams’ days as the Yankee center fielder were numbers. In 2006, the Yankees signed Johnny Damon to play center field and Williams saw spot duty in the corner outfield positions and designated hitter, but never again as a center fielder. In 2007, Williams wanted a guaranteed roster spot, but the Yankees offered him only a chance to make the team and he declined the non-roster invite. Williams’ next appearance in Yankee Stadium was on September 21, 2008 when he helped close the stadium and received a standing ovation. Today, Williams holds the post season record for RBI’s (80) and extra base hits (51). He held the record for post season homeruns until Manny Ramirez passed him.
What the future holds for Jeter is uncertain. Jeter has handled his career with class as he showed when breaking the Yankees’ hit record and will become the first Yankee to have 3,000 hits solely in their uniform. The fans reactions will become interesting when the skills decline more, but there is no place to currently move him to another position. Regardless of the way it will end, it will end. No matter if he hangs on too long, gracefully steps aside or leaves to play elsewhere for a year or two, Jeter’s place is already written and the exit will not tarnish the days he wore the uniform.