10.21.10

The Last Days of Derek Jeter's Yankees

Jeter, Posada, Rivera, Pettitte: They’ve won five World Series together, staying loyal to the Yankees and each other. At an average age of 38, Allen Barra on their last stand.

Thirty-eight isn’t old for a bottle of wine or a 21st-century American war, but it’s positively ancient for a professional athlete. That happens to be the average age of the New York Yankees so-called Core Four—relief pitcher Mariano Rivera, catcher Jorge Posada, starting pitcher Andy Pettitte, and shortstop Derek Jeter. And at the end of November, that ticker goes up to 38.5 when Rivera turns 41.

All four made their Major League debuts with the Bronx Bombers in 1995, and, except for three years when Pettitte was with the Houston Astros, they have been teammates like no others in baseball history, playing in seven World Series and winning five, and making it to the playoffs 12 times in the 13 seasons they were all on the roster.

Tonight the Yankees, down three games to two, play the Texas Rangers in the American League Championship series. If the Yankees lose, it will probably be the old guard’s last stand.

When Catfish Hunter became baseball’s first free agent in 1976 and left the Oakland A’s to sign a huge contract with the Yankees, there was much lamenting the loss of loyalty in baseball—where was the integrity, many writers and fans asked, in a game where players jumped from team to team just for money? As it turned out, players in the era of free agency didn’t change teams more often, it was just that before 1976 they were traded and afterward they left at their own discretion. Many are still slow to grasp the concept, but it was only after players had a choice about where they played that the element of loyalty really entered the game.

Pettitte told me, “They were the main reason I came back.”

The George Steinbrenner Yankees, by signing Hunter and later Reggie Jackson, practically defined the free-agent era, and the 2010 Yankees, with All-Stars such as first baseman Mark Teixeira, third baseman Alex Rodriguez, and lefty pitching ace C.C. Sabathia, have continued that tradition. The irony is that this Yankee team also features the greatest embodiment of loyalty that team sports has seen since the Catfish put on pinstripes—loyalty to the team, loyalty to the fans, but also loyalty to each other.

Rivera and Jeter are certain Hall of Famers while Pettitte and Posada will get some consideration. To be sure, playing for the richest team in baseball, all four have been magnificently compensated—perhaps $600 million in salary and bonuses. It’s likely that any of them could have gotten better deals with other teams—the Dodgers, Angels, Red Sox, Phillies, Braves, and, of course, the Mets, all of which have considerable resources, have coveted them at some time over the years.

“I won’t say I’ve never thought about playing somewhere else,” Derek Jeter told me earlier this season in Boston, amid a swirl of speculation as to what would happen at the end of the season when his contract was up. “Sure, I’ve thought about it. And anyone who says they don’t think about the money is just plain dishonest. But you’re going to get a lot of money no matter who you play for. The important thing is not to lose sight of the other things besides the money. I mean the team tradition, the fans, and the guys you play with. It means a lot to keep coming back here year after year and play alongside guys you respect.”

Andy Pettitte did leave the Yankees, for three years, to play for the Houston Astros, but there were extenuating circumstances: He was heading back to his home state. “To tell you the truth, all I thought about after we lost the World Series [in 2003, to the Florida Marlins] was pitching a few years for my hometown team and then maybe wrapping it all up,” Pettitte said when I talked to him in Boston. “I wanted to be nearer my family and help the Astros get to the World Series [which they did in 2005, losing to the Chicago White Sox in four games]. After three years with Houston, I was kind of up in the air about continuing my career. I don’t if that I would have come back to New York if it hadn’t been for my captain [Jeter], my catcher [Posada] and my closer [Rivera]. They wouldn’t leave me alone and kept badgering me with ‘We need you’—stuff like that. They were the main reason I came back.”

Whether or not Pettitte pitches next year, the man who holds virtually every postseason pitching records (most starts, most innings pitched, most victories) desperately wants at least one more start before cleaning out his locker. In Game 3 against the Rangers, he was superb, allowing just two runs over seven innings but left the game before the eighth, down 2-0 to Rangers ace Cliff Lee. (The Yankees went on to lose 8-0.) If Phil Hughes beats the Rangers tonight in Arlington, Pettitte will get a rematch with Lee with the American League pennant at stake.

Whatever the outcome of the ALCS, the likelihood that they will all be together again next season is slim. Posada is signed through the 2011 season, though given that he can no longer be expected to catch at least 100 games, the possibility that the Yankees might buy out the final year of his contract can’t be ruled out. Rivera, Jeter, and Pettitte are all free agents. Pettite, come the next midseason, will be just one year shy of 40, and the tally of starters who have pitched in 30 or more games at that age is shorter than Sarah Palin’s reading list.

Regarding Mariano Rivera, Yankee pitching coach Dave Eiland told me, “When he stops being great, then you can talk about how much longer he can pitch. I didn’t see any signs this season that he isn’t still great.” Rivera will make no more comment on the subject than to smile and say, “When my arm falls off, then I’ll think about quitting.”

As for Jeter, arguably the most popular player the Yankees have had since Mickey Mantle was at his peak half a century ago, here is a sobering fact: If the Yankees go on to beat Texas, they will be the first team ever to win the pennant with a shortstop as old as Derek Jeter.

“One of the things that kept me playing here,” said Posada last week when the Yankees hosted the Minnesota Twins in the American League Division Series, “was Monument Park. I know it sounds a little silly, ‘cause I know I’m not in the same class with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, but all the time I’ve played here I’ve liked imagining my plaque out there, too. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen, but where else could you even dream about something like that?”

“Mo and Jete,” he says, using the shorthand nicknames the Yankees have for their closer and shortstop, “might make it. Andy? Who knows? But for all of us, it’s been heck of a run.”

If the Yankees show the same kind of loyalty to their Core Four as they’ve shown the team, there will someday be a new plaque in Monument Park—with four faces on it.

Allen Barra writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal and The Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and The Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.