Manny Ramirez, Derek Jeter and the Inevitability of Aging

For many New Yorkers the feel good story of the year would be a comeback season by Derek Jeter. Following a poor offensive showing in 2010 and a slow start in 2011, if Jeter were to begin hitting sometime in the next few weeks, and continue hitting for the rest of the year, it would be a great example of one of the game’s all time greats proving the pundits wrong and coming up with one more good year. This would also, of course, be very welcome news for the New York Yankees and their fans who would love to see their future Hall of Fame shortstop once again be one of the best top of the order hitters in the game.

Unfortunately for Jeter and his fans, this is unlikely to happen. Jeter has been unable to fight father time and is likely well into the decline phase of his career. Fans of any of the 29 other teams in baseball are taking various degrees of pleasure in witnessing Jeter’s decline. Many Red Sox fans or other Yankee haters who see Jeter not as a dignified hard working star, but as the symbol of the smugness and entitlement that they hate about the Yankees are undoubtedly enjoying his struggles a great deal. Some other fans may be a little saddened to see a formerly great player, at least for now, being reduced to being simply ordinary, or worse.

The decline of Jeter, while not a pleasant thing for the Yankees or their fans to witness, looks a little different today than it did last week, not because of anything Jeter has done, but because of the sudden retirement, amidst another steroid scandal, of Manny Ramirez. Ramirez, who is only about two years older than Jeter and became a regular two years before Jeter, was not only a close contemporary of Jeter’s, but spent most of his career with the Cleveland Indians during a time when they competed with the Yankees for supremacy in the American League and then with the Red Sox in a similar situation. For a generation, Ramirez’s team and Jeter’s Yankees seemed to be constantly fighting to be the best in the AL. Accordingly, their teams represented their league in the World Series a combined total of 11 times between 1995 and 2009.

Ramirez and Jeter were rivals, but also had very different public personas. Jeter sought to avoid controversy, was rarely an interesting interview, was deeply competitive, tried to conduct himself with dignity and seemed to personify what Yankee fans think of as Yankee dignity. Ramirez was something of a goofball often good for a funny line, made more mental mistakes in a typical month than Jeter would make in a decade, and was outgoing and gregarious in a way that Jeter never was. Ramirez was also controversial and often became something of a burden to his teams. Much of this was dismissed as “Manny being Manny,” whatever that meant.

The contrast between the two stars, who as much as anybody defined the Yankee-Red Sox Rivalry between 2001-2007 has never been clearer. It turns out “Manny being Manny” was really Manny being Manny on steroids. Ramirez’ retirement is not only marred by scandal but by stupidity. After all, he got caught for steroids once before and should have known that he would have gotten caught again. The gregarious goofy guy, it turns out, was not able to accept the reality that all players get old and believed that through cheating he could defy time. The other guy, who some see as classy and others as smug, knew better and is now struggling to help the only team for which he has ever played, while the reality that he may have to be eased out of his starting job at some point in the not too distant future is unavoidable. While Ramirez has brought shame to himself, there is no shame in getting old as Jeter is doing. If we don’t get that feel good comeback in 2011 from Jeter, maybe we should at least recognize that a great player succumbing to the inevitable rather than trying to cheat deserves some respect.