Weekend highlights NY's changing baseball landscape
As Mo and Pettitte exit the stage, city's other stars face different futures
NEW YORK -- The New York market, steeped in baseball grandeur for decades, has had more than its share of extraordinary players -- on each side of the river -- in the last 20 years. We here have been entertained by O'Neill and Ordonez, Bernie and Beltran, Posada, Piazza and Pedro, Coney and Cano, Robin, Rickey and Reyes, Tino and Tom, Doc, Darryl and Donnie. That list of dazzlers omits five others who have made news or will make news this weekend -- a starter, a finisher, two captains and the "lightning-Rod."
The five are on the palette today -- and what a mosaic they have already made. Two are retiring, one may be retired by something other than his own call before next season, and the other two are the team leaders.
Three of the five represent the best the game has provided, in different ways, since the last time the World Series wasn't played -- Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and David Wright. Special players, special citizens. Andy Pettitte is a step below the other three on each count, his otherwise unblemished resume stained by lapses in judgment nine and 11 years ago that will forever be his asterisk.
And then there is Alex Rodriguez, who -- if not for his injections, behavioral misdemeanors, often invisible postseasons and personality quirks -- would stand above the other four because of his statistical resume and because he was a gifted defender assigned to the game's most critical position.
He was -- and yes, note the use of past tense in his case -- as well-equipped as anyone the game has seen since Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Johnny Bench. But he thought he needed better tools.
The weekend's events juxtapose and connect the five in intriguing ways.
Wright hit a home run on Friday night in his first at-bat since Aug. 2. Nearly a third of the Mets' season had slipped away while he convalesced. And what does he do -- mimic one of his heroes, Jeter, who hit a home run in his first at-bat, July 28, following his second stint on the disabled list.
Wright, of course, appreciates any connection to Jeter.
Moreover, Wright's home run against his personal piñata, Cole Hamels, also put his career total at 221 -- one beyond Mike Piazza's total with the Mets. Wright, as he is wont to do, deferred to the player he passed.
"To surpass him in a statistical category ... you know you're doing something right," said Wright. "To be mentioned in any kind of sentence with Mike is pretty special, 'cause, obviously, he's a Hall of Fame hitter, Hall of Fame catcher, and one of the best ever to play the game."
For Wright to genuflect in Piazza's direction was anticipated, proper and in marked contrast to how Rodriguez reacted last season when he pushed his career RBIs total past that of Mays. At that time, A-Rod was scolded for his silence. Since then, he has passed Stan Musial in RBIs and given The Man his due -- so he is learning. Why, he pratically gushed about Lou Gehrig on Friday night, after his 24th career grand slam put him one ahead of the first Yankees captain and into the record book.
But the master of the vertical pronoun didn't salute Gehrig, so much as he told of his own fascination with the Iron Horse. The other third baseman in town would have gone on and on without a me, a my or a mine.
Because of his confessed use of performance-enhancers, Pettitte ranks somewhere between the unspoiled, untainted and un-guilty three and the unbelievable Rodriguez. He swears his use of HGH was intended to accelerate the healing process and not his fastball. Given his sincerity in all other instances, believing him is uncomplicated and easy.
Pettitte is what the Yankees like to call a "true Yankee," despite his sabbatical with the Astros and his indiscretions. He may have accomplished enough -- note his career record includes 255 victories and more than 100 fewer losses -- to prompt voters to linger at his name when the 2019 Hall of Fame ballot is distributed. The asterisk will undermine his candidacy.
That he shares the retirement stage with Rivera on Sunday is appropriate; they have shared so much already. That Rivera insisted Pettitte join him is just plain nice, something Wright would do. Wright, Rivera and Pettitte are accommodating guys. A-Rod, not so much.
Where does that leave Jeter, the gentleman? He can't make news on the field on Sunday because he's unable to play. He's assigned to the DL -- disappointed list -- because he can never again meet Mo on the mound in the ninth or give Pettitte a moment by reaching for the rosin bag. But he's the captain, and more than 25 percent of the Core 4. He's been the everyday shortstop who helped Pettitte reach 255 wins, and who often gave Mo something to save. He'll make news on Sunday by watching the Stadium's last call for half of the Core.
He's next, of course, no matter how much he protests and promises to rehab. This mean season has underscored his baseball mortality. Jeter will be watching on Sunday, as he has watched most of the season. He may be watching more than he can now imagine next season, if the Yankees act responsibly and seek a successor for a player who can be followed but not replaced.
Davey Johnson, also retiring, says the most difficult task he's had in the game was ushering Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter out of Queens in 1989. Joe Girardi hasn't had such unplesantness forced upon him. Rivera has been close to the top of his game, and Pettitte has been pretty darn effective for a guy with a odometer installed in 1995.
But now there is Jeter, and his warranty has expired. His position and Hall of Fame likelihood prompt thoughts of Ozzie Smith in 1996, when the Cardinals brought in Tony La Russa and also shortstop Royce Clayton. The new man started 111 games, Ozzie started 50 and watched someone else play more than twice his innings at shortstop and then retired. It's worth a "hmmmm."
Jeter's ankle became brittle, and he started 15 games between his first and third DL assignments.
Retirement, he might feel it in his bones already.
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.