The decline of a sporting icon

It’s a rare alignment of the solar system when three sportswriters as disparate in writing style and temperament as Joe Posnanski, Jeff MacGregor and Buzz Bizzinger exude a similar tone and sentiment about Derek Jeter.

That’s because the New York Yankees’ shortstop and captain is one of the few sporting figures to enjoy nearly universal respect from the Fly Boys of the sports media, a notoriously tough lot to please. As this week’s tributes show, it’s about much more than becoming the Yankees’ all-time hits leader (and the first in franchise history to surpass 3,000).

Jeter’s gruesome broken ankle injury on Sunday calls into the question how many years — if there are more than one — that remain in Jeter’s sterling career. He’s 38, and was hobbling mightily as New York got past the Orioles in the American League Division Series. The Yankees face elimination this afternoon in Detroit, which leads the American League Championship Series 3-0.

Here’s how MacGregor started his column on ESPN.com:

“What we sentimentalize in New York City is our lack of sentiment. We’re sweet on our own ruthlessness, and the proof is in what we tear down. Stores. Restaurants. Churches. Every landmark is negotiable, every bit of history for sale, every institution movable or removable for a price. Nothing here is forever. Not even Derek Jeter.”

Bizzinger, famous for his lack of sentiment about many things (but he lives in Philly), is preparing for the worst and getting rather sappy about it:

“I don’t watch baseball as much as I used to. I don’t watch any sport as much as I used to. It is the culture of sports that intrigues me, not the day-to-day play that, except for occasional punctuations, has become a swampland of mediocrity and monotony.

“Because I must. Because the game of baseball will not be the same without him—what class there is left, gone for good.”

“Derek Jeter is one of the few inspirations left to me, perhaps the only one. If any other player said he would return next season, I would dismiss it. A fractured ankle at the age of 38 is often a career killer. But not for Derek Jeter.

“I believe him when he says he will be back.”

These kinds of stories are right up Posnanski’s alley, as he careens to Jeter after making the rounds on the talk show circuit for his Joe Paterno book:

“Watching Jeter go down and stay down as he tried to field a ball to his left — the play that has long been his nemesis — was grave television. Yankees manager Joe Girardi was insistent that the shattered ankle was not career threatening, but Jeter is 38 and at that age a mosquito bite, acid indigestion or a particularly violent sneeze can be career threatening.

“Still, the thought was not of the end, but of the beginning. Derek Jeter played in his first Yankees postseason game in 1996 — three weeks before the O.J. Simpson civil trial began. He hit ninth in the order, and he went one-for-four (a ground ball single up the middle), and of course nobody had any idea yet what he would become.

“People forget, that 1996 Yankees team was a mishmash of old Steinbrenner and new. Tim Raines, Wade Boggs, Darryl Strawberry and Mariano Duncan were all in the lineup that day* — a not-so-subtle reminder of the 1980s and early 1990s when the Yankees acquired every Steve Kemp, Don Baylor, John Montefusco, Jack Clark and Steve Sax in some sort of madcap effort to turn back time, Cher style.”

A-Rod is now in the firing line of the New York press corps, the fall guy for a brutal series for the Yankees, especially with his benching. And the media moralization about Lance Armstrong continues, which I won’t get into here.

Derek Jeter is the antidote to the antihero in this sports age of the antihero, and his long-term injury at an advanced age has prompted even notoriously cranky scribes to appreciate the novelty he represents.

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