KANSAS CITY, Mo.In the fourth inning of a game last week against the Kansas City Royals, the man who has been the face of the New York Yankees for the past decade and a half crossed paths with the man primed to be the next face of the franchise.
The Yankees were losing to the last-place Royals when Derek Jeter — he of 3,000 hits, five World Series rings and a lifetime of adulation from Yankees fans — stepped to the plate. A runner was on first. Quickly, Jeter fell behind in the count. Then, on a nasty low curveball, Jeter’s bat whipped through the zone with that familiar, frenetic swing. He smoked the pitch into the left-field corner and drove home a run to bring the Yankees within a run of tying the score. As Jeter sped around first and glided into second, you could forgive a Yankees fan for wondering whether the 37-year-old will keep playing forever.
Robinson Cano fouled off a pitch. Then another. And another. Seven in a row, wearing out the pitcher. Then Cano turned on a pitch, paused for a beat to admire his blast — a majestic 449-footer into the fountain in Kauffman Stadium’s outfield — and rounded the bases, a scene Yankees fans hope to see repeated for another decade, maybe more.
This five-run inning, as it turned out, was all the Yankees needed to win and give them the best record in the American League.
And this inning, too, told the story of the 2011 Yankees: a team at a crossroads, where fans can watch the torch being passed from one dynasty to the next.
You can’t play baseball forever, and some day, the Yankees’ Key Three, those stalwarts who have been with the organization since their careers began — shortstop Jeter, catcher Jorge Posada and closer Mariano Rivera — will walk away from the game.
That day is likely coming sooner instead of later. All three have had well-documented struggles this year, amplified in the New York media echo chamber. And while each has overcome them lately — Jeter has been on a tear since coming off a June stint on the disabled list and picked up his 3,000th hit in the process; Rivera pitched two perfect ninth innings against the Royals after three rough appearances the previous week; and Posada, a DH-type these days who turned 40 last week, answered being benched with a grand slam and six RBI in his first start off the bench — these successes won’t last forever.
Life changes. The Boss becomes Hal and Hank Steinbrenner. The House That Ruth Built becomes The House That Wall Street Built. Cheap hot dogs in the concourse become sushi and a Hard Rock Café. And the Yankees’ Key Three, the men who have defined this franchise during one of the finest dynasties in recent sports history, become a part of pinstripe nostalgia, to be replaced by — well, by whom, exactly?
“A great will leave and another great will emerge,” center fielder Curtis Granderson said on a recent afternoon, sitting in front of his locker in the visitors’ clubhouse. “It could be Robinson (Cano, as the face of the franchise). Just because he’s been through minor leagues all the way through the system. He’s been there for a championship. He has different levels to his game, from a defensive standpoint, to offensive, and also power — he does a little bit of everything. He could definitely, easily step into the role.”
This year, Granderson has made an early case for becoming a future face of the Yankees, leading the American League in RBI and ranking second in home runs. The team is filled with stars who would be faces of most every other franchise: Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira. None of them, however, started in the Yankees franchise. And that means something, especially in an era where careers rarely are spent with one team.
“People love that homegrown player,” said Bradford Turnow, a fifth-grade teacher on Long Island who runs YankeesHistory.com. “Jeter’s the perfect example. There’s not too many things bigger than the Yankee brand name, but I do think it’ll take a major hit (when Jeter retires). When people go to Yankee Stadium, they look right to shortstop. They go to see No. 2, Derek Jeter. They’re not there to see A-Rod or the other guys.”
“It’s definitely a changing of the guard,” said Jay Jaffe, a senior columnist with Baseball Prospectus. “We’ve already seen a lot of signs of the remaining three of their vulnerabilities this year. And we’ve seen how difficult it is to even broach the subject of ushering these guys into the sunset, but (Yankees manager Joe) Girardi and (general manager Brian) Cashman have been tasked with exactly that. It’s a connection, not just to the glory years but, to the restoration of the franchise as one of the pre-eminent in all of sports.”
It’s easy to forget that the Yankees hadn’t won a World Series in nearly two decades when Jeter, Rivera and Posada came along. The brand had fallen on hard times, with old Yankee Stadium being painted with empty seats throughout the 1980s.
Then came these three. (Throw in pitcher Andy Pettitte, and they comprised the Core Four. All played their first games for the Yankees in 1995.) They played ball well, and they played ball right. They became the faces of a franchise that was all about winning as a team, even in an era where players seemed more interested in individual accomplishments. Yankees fans knew there would be that immobile package every day at the ballpark, and there was a sense of comfort they could take in that.
Inside the visitors’ clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium, the many Yankees stars went about their business, preparing for the game. Jeter tried to explain to a gaggle of a dozen reporters why he has been hitting so well recently: staying back on the ball. Granderson sat at his locker, toying with his iPad. Cano watched video of Royals pitchers, grabbed a bat and headed to the indoor batting cage. Rivera disappeared into the kitchen. Sabathia tugged his pants onto his massive frame. A rerun of “Everybody Loves Raymond” played on a flat-screen television.
Teixeira sat near the showers, musing about the future of this great franchise.
“The pinstripes are bigger than anyone,” said Teixeira, who grew up a Don Mattingly fan. “Derek is the captain, and he’s going to be the face until he’s done playing. (But) I don’t think there’s a need for one face. It’s all about the pinstripes. It’s all about winning.
“The great thing about the Yankee franchise is that every generation steps up and wins championships. You had a guy like Reggie Jackson walk into town in 1977 and win two straight championships.”
It’s hard not to be in awe of this franchise. And that’s the thing about the Yankees: It’s never really been about one player. The St. Louis Cardinals need an Albert Pujols as their face, the Atlanta Braves a Chipper Jones. With the Yankees, a few rise to that iconic level, and Cano just might.
But the Yankees don’t need him to. The sum of the pinstripes is greater than any one player.
Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, and the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors.
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