For the life of me, I can’t forget about Barry Bonds.
It didn’t help when he popped up in the news this week when he served as a guest instructor at San Francisco’s spring training, but Bonds’ shadow has cast over most of my generation’s baseball memories. In a way, his story numbed monumental occasions. If it’s a cheater making history, then what are we really watching?
Aside from the Red Sox’s 2004 comeback, the biggest baseball story I’ll have for my grandkids one day is seeing Bonds hit No. 756. It’s nearly seven years later, and I still — spitefully — remember that August night. Mike Bacsik was the pitcher, Brian Schneider was catching. Bonds grooved the pitch so hard that the crowd jumped up immediately. They knew, Bonds knew, I knew. It was happening, and it was horrible.
Bonds and company lingered long enough to leave tainted marks on everything. But that’s why Derek Jeter retiring is the best thing that can happen to the sport right now.
That clearly sounds backwards. Jeter is a generational poster boy. There’s no gray area about how he’s revered — in fact, there’s no dark area either. He’s a throwback. He’s puppies. He’s ice cream. He isn’t A-Rod. “It’s good for the sport?” you cry. “What the hell are we going to do when he’s gone? Will baseball even matter? Are the Yankees even going to let someone else play shortstop?”
As extreme as that sounded, most of us probably expressed a fraction of that disdain when hearing this was it for Jeter. And I’m not saying that disappointment won’t change when he’s gone — his impact is one hell of a void to fill on a few levels. We shouldn’t be anticipating that last time he ducks out of the dugout. We should be having a good time with him on the way there.
He’s earned this season in a way that few athletes have- a celebration of their work. Hosting teams will put him in the spotlight and shower him with gifts. Reporters will cut talking about his ankle and his defense long enough to share their sentiments. Yankee Stadium crowds will shell out 81 — or more, playoff pending — days of name-chanting, photo-snapping crazed fanhood. It doesn’t matter if Jeter is hitting .071 by July; he’ll be voted to the All-Star Game and likely walk off with its Most Valuable Player award. Barring A-Rod taking Bud Selig hostage at gunpoint in his office, Jeter will be baseball’s top story for six straight months, and it’s hard to imagine that bothering anyone. It’ll be like a nice Saturday afternoon every single day he plays.
And our satisfaction should come in the way that he’s leaving: slower, lamer, knowingly too old for the game and distinctively so. I always think about Ken Griffey Jr.’s last season with the Mariners, when he had an old-man gut and a heavy gait. A story broke that he fell asleep in a team clubhouse armchair during one game, and I loved it. Junior was fighting a losing battle with nature, and it was natural. Jeter’s decline has also been natural, and “natural” is the closest word a baseball fan can get to “clean” right now. We desperately need some of the good guys of this era to stay clean, and it seems certain by now that guys like Jeter and Junior didn’t let us down.
So cheer when Jeter can’t leg out a dribbler down the line! Hold your scoff when ESPN airs a pregame ceremony the Athletics put on for Jeter in July. Watch him win, lose and leave the field. Remember the moments that created a great player like him, and you won’t have to forget players like Bonds, because it’s still better to say goodbye to a hero than hello to a villain.