It was 1999 and I was stuck in the Connecticut woods on a family vacation to the Foxwoods Casino with my grandparents, my sister and my parents. I was 17 and bored out of my mind, but as we sometimes did while away, my father and I ducked out to a minor league baseball game — a Norwich Navigators game, to be exact.
I don’t remember the stadium or the final score at this point, but I do remember spying Alfonso Soriano in the on-deck circle for the first time. We had to be less than 15 feet away. He had to hear me in that sparsely filled stadium when I told my father who this 160 pound “kid” was and why he could be something special for “our” Yankees, regurgitating whatever information I had read online in a fan forum. I told myself this and then I watched Soriano stand in like a bent wire sculpture before he laced a double into the gap with a swing that moved like the lash of a whip and legs that moved from the box to second in what seemed like a blink. The whole display was a kind of electricity that I had never and have never seen. I’ve heard people talk about watching Darryl Strawberry when he was coming up through the Mets system in the 80s — I imagine it looked a lot like watching a young Alfonso Soriano.
Despite the buzz about Soriano, though, I doubt anyone would have guessed that he would go on to hit 412 home runs over the course of a 16 year career that began later that summer. A career that may have come to an end in the most unceremonious of ways this weekend as the Yankees designated Soriano for assignment after a disappointing first half.
It’s been a little more than a year since Soriano returned to the Yankees and more than a decade since the team dealt him to the Texas Rangers for that whole Alex Rodriguez experience. In the in-between years, as Rodriguez became more of a headache, Soriano slowly became more of a one dimensional power hitter as his speed decreased and his batting average inched down. A seven time All-Star for the Yankees, Rangers, Nationals and Cubs by the time he was 32, Soriano simply began aging away from greatness naturally as he crossed into his mid-30s in the way that most athletes do, but there were those occasional spurts where the old Soriano materialized; most substantially, the final two months of the 2013 season when he returned to the Yankees. In just 58 games, Soriano hit 17 home runs and drove in 50 runs with an OPS+ of 131 to almost single-handedly lead the team right up to the front gate of the postseason. Entering his age-38 season, it would have been greedy for Soriano or the Yankees to hope for more of the same this year, but the Baseball Gods owed certainly owed Alfonso Soriano a better end than the one that it looks like he is getting after hitting just .221 with 6 home runs and an OPS+ of 68 in 226 at bats.
In the summer of 2011, me and my wife took a drive down to Trenton, New Jersey a few days after I hurriedly bought tickets to see a Trenton Thunder game. Derek Jeter would be in town on a rehab assignment with the Yankees AA affiliate, and with the new Yankee Stadium out of my price range, I reasoned that this might be my last good chance to see Jeter play in-person. Admittedly, our seats weren’t great (one row down from the main concourse), but after seeing Jeter from a mile away every time that I had gone to the old Yankee Stadium, I was appreciative of the comparative closeness and the chance to spy one of the best baseball players of all-time just a few days prior to the moment when he would get his 3,000th hit and I think I’ll always remember his grace and confidence.
When you watch a college age kid play baseball, someone who is full of hope and promise and fear, their movements seem a bit more wild, un-refined and un-sure. More than anyone else that I have ever seen on a baseball diamond, Derek Jeter is the total opposite of that. To watch Jeter’s approach and his movements on the field is to watch someone who, in their own mind, will get a hit every time. When Derek Jeter dribbles a ball back to the pitcher or strikes out, it is a lie told by the world to him. It is fiction. Watching Jeter is like watching a maestro conduct an orchestra — there are no stray notes and nothing seems rehearsed. It seems as natural as the rise and fall that occurs when we breathe in and breathe out.
After 20 years, this season will be Derek Jeter’s last as an active player in Major League Baseball. To celebrate his impact on the game, “The Captain” is getting a farewell tour in the way that Mariano Rivera and Cal Ripken Jr. did when they decided to walk away from the game on their own terms. A 14 time All-Star and five time World Champion with 3,400 hits (and 200 more in the postseason), 258 home runs and a lifetime batting average of .311, Jeter will be celebrated at the All-Star game in Minnesota in a week, elected by the fans after posting a .266 average and an OPS+ of 80 while contributing mightily to the Yankees defensive struggles.
I’m not saying that the Yankees should release Jeter due to his poor play and I’m not dismissing his farewell tour or his All-Star selection, nor am implying that Soriano’s career is on par with Jeter’s (there is no question, Jeter is an all-time great and Soriano is an all-time very good). But as these two players and now former teammates end their careers in vastly different ways with this wide fanfare gap, I’m just wondering if we can acknowledge that the distance between Alfonso Soriano’s career and Derek Jeter’s career is far smaller than the distance between the gutter and the stars where they respectively find themselves, and that baseball, like life, can be incredibly unfair.