Monthly Archives: September 2014

Jeter’s Grand Finale

This may not have exactly been the ending the Derek Jeter wanted. For 20 years, he prided himself in helping the Yankees win championships. For all the individual statistics and accolades (all well-deserved), he started every season with the goal of raising the World Series trophy 7 months later. His post-game remarks on Wednesday, following the 9-5 loss to Baltimore that eliminated the Yankees from the playoffs, spoke of the disappointment about his season ending in September. After 20 years, Jeter still was ever-focused on winning, speaking with the bitter resentment that a 28th championship had eluded his team this year. All season, Jeter received honors and gifts signifying the end of a remarkable career, but there was still baseball to be played and games to be won. This season, just like his first or tenth, was about winning championships.

That part of the story didn’t quite pan out. Jeter will end his career with two years of injuries and missed postseasons, a far cry from the many championships that highlighted his early years. There would be no “Win one for the Captain” this year, no ticker-tape parade, no MVP-type numbers, no final championship to share with his teammates. His numbers declined, and his critics whined. There was chatter about whether he should be batting second or fielding shortstop. It didn’t matter, Jeter was going to play anyway. Day in and day out, Derek Jeter approached each game with the same dedication and pride that he has showcased for 20 years; he played the game the way it was supposed to be. Every team that honored Jeter recognized the impact he has had on the game. They were not just acknowledging one of the best players of all-time; they were also thanking a man who honored and appreciated the game of baseball, who worked hard to succeed and served as a role model for players and young fans. Whether he will admit this or not, the emotional effect of this season certainly affected Jeter. Not many players can fully dictate the manner at which they depart the game; even fewer can expect to receive such gratitude from fans across the globe. The past month became a storm of Jeter-mania, with players and fans scrambling to hang onto each memory, to be a part of a story that, for many, is ending far too soon. This week we were treated to another curtain call, when Jeter broke out of a late-season slump and hit .353 during his last homestand, including his first and only home run at Yankee Stadium this year. All of New York geared up for the final game in Jeter’s House. Ticket prices shot through the upper-deck; the rain forecast magically missed the Bronx, and Jeter took the field for what would undoubtedly be an emotional final game. On the field though, the game seemed largely a formality. The Yankees were out of the playoffs; the Orioles had already clinched the division. Injuries had hit the normal New York lineup, and Baltimore was already looking ahead to the postseason. Of course we expected a hit or two, or maybe a jump throw from the left side of the infield. But beyond that?

Another Yankees storyline of the season, David Robertson had inherited the very unenviable task of following the irreplaceable Mariano Rivera in his role as the Yankees closer. The New York bullpen, although solid for most of the year, had given up some close games of late. Yet with the Yankees leading 5-2 after eight innings, few in the stands believed that Thursday’s game would go to the bottom of the ninth. The Yankees would at least guarantee another winning season. Derek Jeter would leave the field for the last time, while enjoying another win, and fans would begin to say goodbye. The stage was set for an ordinary finale…but we should have known better. In what will be considered the best blown save in Yankees history, two deep home runs to left field inexplicably tied the game. Joe Girardi (who luckily had not removed Jeter from the field for a farewell in the top half of the inning) turned to his lineup, where of course Jeter was due up third. A single and sacrifice bunt brought Jeter to the plate for the fifth time that evening, this time with the winning run in scoring position. Great players find themselves in pressure situations, the true champions always rise to the occasion. Any fan calm enough to take in the moment saw Jeter step up to the plate the same way he has done over 11,000 times: the way he adjusts his helmet and raises his hand in the air before glancing toward the pitcher and waiting for the ball. His inside-out swing lashed at the first pitch, as it has done so many times, and suddenly Derek Jeter was 22 again. The fans saw the same young shortstop that burst on the scene as Rookie of the Year and hadn’t stopped working to improve his game. We recognized the boyish charm of the the world champion who hoisted the trophy so many time. In an instant, the ball lept off the same P72 bat into right field, and we could relive 20 years of Derek Jeter’s greatness. Was there any other moment that could fully capture the magic of such a career? The throw from the outfield was a second too late; Richardson ran just fast enough to dive across the plate; the umpire was ruling it safe at home. Now Jeter was raising his arms in the air and mobbed by his teammates. He saw Andy, Jorge, Mariano, and Joe, with whom he shared so much of his career. He found his family, who were instrumental in his success as a player and as a person. And all the while, looking on the from opposite dugout was Buck Showalter, Jeter’s first manager who made sure the future captain wore #2.

In true fashion, he saved one his best moments for the end. Derek Jeter ended his career the same way it began: with perseverance, honor, class, joy, and victory. All Derek Jeter ever wanted was to play shortstop for the New York Yankees. In his final game at Yankee Stadium, he showed us just how much the privilege of being that Yankee shortstop meant to him: helping his team win, and becoming a champion the right way. Not a bad ending at all. A perfect finale. AN

The harder they fall

The bigger they are…

Two years ago he was Bladerunner, the inspirational story of a double amputee who had conquered the Paralympic Games and was how competing on an even bigger stage. A man with no legs–running in the Olympics. He said all the right things in interviews. He ran with the support the support of his country, and proudly carried the nation’s flag at the closing ceremonies. He anchored the 4×400 relay and qualified for the semifinals in the 400 meter dash (all against athletes that don’t have to put on their legs each day). A silver medalist from the 2011 world championships, he was in the midst of a remarkable career. This type of story gets fast-tracked to the headlines and the highlight reels, one that will often inspire the world. We read about athletes who overcome personal obstacles en route to success, the “feel good” stories and the underdogs. A double amputee merely competing in track in field is a phenomenal personal and athletic achievement–yet this man’s determination took him much further.

Now Oscar Pistorius is mending the pieces of his life that changed so drastically since that summer in London. Following the 400 meter semifinals, Kirani James (the eventual 400 meter gold medalist) chose to trade bib numbers with Pistorius, a sign of mutual respect among competitors. That scene seems ages in the past, replaced by ones of Pistorius in a courtroom recalling details of a horrifically fatal shooting of his girlfriend. Last week Pistorius was found not guilty of murder and guilty of culpable homicide, awaiting sentencing. The legal ramifications will take much longer to sort out (much longer than a 400 meter sprint), let alone a possible return to competition. Pistorius’s legacy will be forever linked to a locked door and some alleged screams.

And we, the same audience who watched his carbon-fiber blades race around that London stadium, are left with the sobering result of an athlete’s fall from grace. We watch our favorite competitors pursue excellence on the field, and we expect the same perfection from them off the field. It may not be fair, but we hold them to higher standards anyway. Athletes are role models, we watch them on TV and read their stories on the Internet. With the speed of information, mistakes are widely publicized and excuses are rarely believed. Just this past week, the Pistorius case was decided in the wake of misconduct by Ray Rice, Chris Davis, and Adrian Peterson. When you sign a large contract or put on a jersey, you sign more than just your name. You sign on behalf of your team and your fans, your coaches and your mentors. You accept the responsibility that comes with fame or wealth (if you’re lucky to achieve either of those). As long as kids around the world are watching sports, athletes naturally become role models and are expected to act as such. So why do so many fail in doing so? Maybe our expectations are too high; maybe we don’t know what it’s like to have and entire life scrutinized every day. Maybe its hubris or arrogance, or a lack of mentorship, or a preponderance of stupidity. Maybe we don’t hear enough about the positive stories (maybe that’s the place to start).

Fortunes can change in an instant: a misspoken remark, a wrong-turn, an action without thinking. In a second, a legacy is changed, a reputation is ruined. Champion to villain. It’s impossible to remember Barry Bonds’ home run records without the pall of the steroid era. A terrible scandal overshadows the otherwise brilliant coach career of Joe Paterno. We see academic issues and drug use that derail promising careers: stories that overshadow the thousands of players that do act honorably on and off the field. Thus we miss out on the full potential of sports to uplift athletes from tough situations. Athletes who act as positive role models can inspire a new generation, if they are indeed brave enough to live up to that responsibility. Our society accepts mistakes as part of life and cheers for those who acknowledge their shortcomings can return stronger. But mistakes are not always forgotten. They don’t justify cheating; they don’t justify abuse; they don’t justify covering up a scandal; they don’t justify firing a loaded through through a bathroom door without first checking if your girlfriend is in fact not in the bed beside you. One of my favorite quotes comes from one of my favorite sports figures, the late Coach John Wooden: “ability may get you to the top, but character keeps you there.” Making it to the big leagues requires a full commitment to excellence, to not cut corners, simply put, to be the best you can be. Once you’re there, it’s easy to look for a shortcut or act above the rules. I like Coach Wooden’s message because it applies not only to sports, but to business, and politics, and life. Making it to the top is difficult, whether you’re a president, a CEO, or a Super Bowl champion. When you make it to the top, congratulations, you probably deserve it. But if you stumble, it’s a long way to fall.  AN

A remarkable decade

2005. Anybody remember? This was the last time a Grand Slam final was played without someone named Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic, when Marat Safin defeated Lleyton Hewitt in the Australian Open. Soon after, Nadal’s first win at Roland Garros began an unprecedented era when the “Big Three” of tennis put a chokehold on the apex of tennis, winning 29 of next 30 Grand Slams. The three traded the number 1 ranking between them, often meeting in tournament semifinals and finals, and usually watching each other hoist the different trophies. They gave us some of the sport’s greatest matches: long-rallies, close victories, and unbelievable talent. The dominance of the Big Three was something we hadn’t seen before in another sport, regardless of era. By comparison, the 40 major golf championships from 2005-2014 were won by 24 different golfers. These are three of the greatest tennis players in history, and we got to watch them all at the same time. But their dominance was not due to a lack of talent in the field. They regularly matched up against outstanding players and won anyway. In fact, they nearly always defeated each other in tournaments. It is remarkable that three players of their caliber were at their prime within a few years of each other, giving us one of the best decades in tennis history.

I’m still rooting for Federer to win Wimbledon at least one more time. He is playing his best tennis of the last few years, and his comeback against Monfils showed that he has not lost any of his toughness or resolve. Nadal is still as dominant as ever on clay, although his knees and health might not be as much a guarantee. Djokovic, the youngest of three and directly in his prime, will likely win a few more Grand Slams and remain a top ranked player for a few years.

Yet, now we are on the eve of the impossibly predicted US Open final between Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic. After Monday’s final, all four of this year’s Grand Slams titles will be held a different player, two of them by first time Grand Slam champions. Andy Murray is already a 5-time finalist, young players are rising in the rankings, and the class of competitors who flew just below the wings of the Big Three are ready to burst on to a bigger stage. Over the next few years, we will see more new faces in Grand Slam finals, and new champions hoisting the trophies for the first time. There are no signs of who is next poised to dominate the future of the tennis. The Big Three left all competition in the dust for so long and a now a rush of players have the chance to fill the void they will eventually leave behind. Perhaps a few from the next generation will soon ascend to the throne, but it is more likely that tennis oligarchy is an idea of the past. Instead, the next decade will gravitate toward parity in tennis, with new names rising in the rankings and younger players making deep runs at each tournament. There’s no question that there are exciting matches ahead in the future of tennis, but it will be a while before we see the sport dominated by the same excitement and thrill from 10 years of tennis’s Big Three. From Nadal’s dominance at the French Open, to Federer’s run to 17 Grand Slams, to Djokovic’s epic win in last year’s Wimbledon final, this decade gave us some of the best rivalries in tennis history. And if the Big Three era is indeed winding down, it certainly is one to appreciate.  AN