Will the Cubs Ever Have Their Own Derek Jeter?


Wait, re-two-pect? I mean, I know what the marketing geniuses are driving at, but that chronogram just rubs me the wrong way. I mean, it’d be like naming Liam Neeson’s new movie Tak3n. No…no they’re not. Please say this is a joke. Why don’t they just call all of his future projects: “Liam Neeson Talking on Mobile Phones and Kicking Bad Guys’ Asses?” It’s descriptive, intriguing, and wordy; like me, but way cooler and more popular.

But back to the Man of the Hour, the Captain, whose final season marches inexorably toward a teary close. The farewell tour came to a crescendo last night in Yankee Stadium, ostensibly ending a season-long stroke-fest that’s been as overbearingly sweet, and twice as manufactured, as pure aspartame.

Folks in Chicago can sort of relate, though the fanfare for Paulie Konerko hasn’t reached too far beyond Cook County. Jeter, however, has been treated with the awed reverence usually accorded to powerless monarchical figureheads or drunken celebutantes.

And that’s fitting for a man whose list of former flames reads like an All-Star lineup: Tyra Banks and Adriana Lima, Jessicas Biel and Alba, Jordanna Brewster, ScarJo, Vanessa Manillo, Maraih Carey, and Minka Kelly. Women want him, men want to be him. Even George Clooney envies Derek Jeter.

Sure, following a ballplayer’s girlfriend rotation, rather than that of his team’s pitching staff, is a narrative so shallow the boys over at the Sun-Times are probably green with envy over not having come up with it. Though after reading this, I won’t be a bit surprised if they try. But that’s just so Jeter, isn’t it? His career has been about making the absurd mundane.

In a 20-year tenure that has spanned 2,745 games, Jeter has slashed .309/.377/.440 and has compiled 1,310 RBI and 3,463 hits, only 260 of which were home runs. Rather than killing opponents with big blasts, Jeter was more surgical, favoring the death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts method. Or, perhaps more apt, the life-by-2,593-singles route; interestingly enough, that could also serve as the title for his boudoir memoir.

But Jeter’s notoriety hasn’t spawned simply from his ability to bed bevies of buxsome beauties, notching his bedpost at the same rate he climbed the all-time hits list. He’s gone from Kalamazoo to the Bronx Zoo, all the while cruising through championships and milestones with aplomb.

More than the women and the prolific stats  though, it’s the big moments that Derek Jeter will be known for, the clutch performances that defy both conventional logic and sabermetric calculations. Sure, when you look at the postseason numbers, they’re not markedly different from those he put up in regulation (.308/.374/.465). But from the timely flip to nab Jeremy Giambi in Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS to diving into the stands for a pop foul and coming up bloodied, but with ball safely in glove, Jeter has always seemed to rise to the occasion.

And it’s just that propensity for the dramatic that earned him the nickname Mr. November. Due to the events of 9/11, the baseball postseason pushed past Reggie Jackson’s month for the first time when the clock struck midnight as Game 4 of the 2001 World Series went to the 10th inning in a 3-3 tie. Though Jeter was having once of the worst playoffs of his career (.226/.275/.290), he hit a walk-off shot to win the game and tie the series, further cementing his legend.

While the relative dearth of homers is notable, few were surprised when Jeter went yard for this 3,000th hit. Or, as millions saw on Thursday night, to make his final at-bat at Yankee Stadium a walk-off single. He did it all with the eyes of the Big Apple upon him and the pressure of a playoffs-or-bust expectation bearing down. To that end, last night marked only the 2nd time in his career that Jeter took the field with his team mathematically eliminated from the postseason.

As the game officially ended, current teammates mobbed their leader while former Yankees formed a phalanx to greet the future Hall-of-Famer. The soundtrack to the melee on the field was provided by 50,000 fans chanting in unison, thanking their hero for his time in pinstripes. When asked about it, Jeter belied none of his trademark low-key humility, remarking simply, “For what? I was just doing my job.”

But as amazing as the scenario was–Baltimore hits a game-tying homer in the top of the 9th to set up a Jeter at-bat in the bottom–I felt a little bittersweet, if not full-on depressed and forlorn, watching it as a Cubs fan. Sure, we have heroes of our own. It’s just that their exploits now reside only on celluloid or the increasingly-grainy video reel in our minds.

Those whose careers are most fresh are wearing different uniforms for one reason or another or have been exiled, their character flaws exposed by the abrasive grit of a fanbase and media hardened by a culture of losing. Winning is the cure to all ills, but the Cubs seem to have cultivated a virulent strain resistant to all but the most powerful elixir. And while said cure is in short supply on the North Side of Chicago, the Yankees have been trucking it in and swimming in for decades.

Whether it’s the lack of consistency or character or just a certain je ne sais quoi, the Cubs don’t have a Derek Jeter. That said, I wanted to take a look at the recent (last 20 years or so) candidates to see where they, or we, fell short in attaining such widespread cult-hero status.

Ryne Sandberg

This one is intensely personal for me, as Ryno was my hero growing up, so much so that I named my son after him. But despite the HOF pedigree and the retired number flying from Wrigley’s foul pole, Sandberg doesn’t even come close to Jeter, and it’s not just an issue with the lacking numbers.

Jeter has never been anything other than a Yankee; he was drafted by them with the 6th pick in the 1992 amateur draft and will spend every game of his major league career in pinstripes. Sandberg was drafted by, and began his career with, the Phillies, which is where he returned when he was spurned by both Jim Hendry and Theo Epstein in his attempts to become the Cubs skipper.

Tabloid talk of Jeter revolves around the women in his life, but in true #Cubes fashion, Ryno’s only brush with salaciousness involved the other men in his then-wife’s company. And while that might be unfair to the Cubs great, there’s no doubt the lascivious rumors and resultant fallout impacted both the ballplayer and the public’s perception of him, even if only to a small degree.

Sammy Sosa

No Cub in recent memory was able to capture nationwide attention as Sosa did. His Race for 62 with Mark McGwire in 1998 made him a bona fide superstar, a household name who was called upon to hawk Pepsi and other products to the masses. But just like the Biblical strongman Samson, Sosa’s hulking physique allowed him to pull down on his head the temple he had built around himself.

Banished to Baltimore before the last strains of salsa music bled from his bashed boombox and faded into the cacophony of Wrigleyville on a lake breeze, Sosa would resurface briefly into the Cubs consciousness to hit his 600th home run against them as a Texas Ranger.

After retiring for good, Sosa moved to Florida and became a vampire, which explains why he’s been unable to look at himself in the mirror and see that a little contrition would go a long way in reuniting him with the team he was such a huge part of. But even if Sammy and the Cubs ever compromise, the years of acrimony and the various scandals will continue to loom in the background like veiled specters.

Mark Grace

He might have been better than Paulie, who’s gotten a less-heralded farewell tour of his own this season, but Gracie falls well short of the Jeter mark on a couple of fronts. He was a great hitter, compiled some excellent hit totals in his 90’s heyday, and dated at least one semi-famous actress (Janine Turner), but that’s where the comparison’s stop.

Grace was the Mayor of Wrigleyville and made no efforts to cover his partying lifestyle. Jeter, on the other hand, confiscates the phones of vistors to St. Jetersburg, his Tampa manse. Where Jeter appears to have perfect vision when playing the field, Grace favored the use of beer goggles when seeking out slump-busters.

I’m willing to bet that The Captain can’t spin a yarn like Mark Grace, but Jeter probably hasn’t been described as an asshat with regularity either.

Kerry Wood/Mark Prior

These two are lumped together for obvious reasons. Both were can’t-miss prospects who rose quickly through the Cubs organization and eventually took the team to the threshold of greatness. But after falling short in 2003, both Wood and Prior fell victim to the injury bug, that nefarious creature that loves to make meals of elbows and shoulders.

Starlin Castro

Homegrown prospect: check. Shortstop: check. Questionable defense early in his career: check. Prolific hitter on pace for a very nice career: check. Unfortunately, that’s where the comparisons stop though. Aspersions were cast on Starlin’s personal life after an alleged sexual assault incident back in 2012. No charges were filed, but the incident cast a shadow.

In much the same way, accusations of laziness and lack of focus have prevented many from seeing Castro for the excellent player he is. But whether it’s his perceived lack of hustle, quiet and reserved nature, or the communication gap as a non-native English speaker, Castro will likely never be embraced by fans in Chicago in the same manner as Jeter in New York.

The Future

It’s not going to be easy for the Cubs to find a guy who can even approach the near-mythical standing of Derek Jeter. Javy Baez might be a unicorn who was given a warm welcome to the team, but he’s going to have to put up numbers to go along with the potential. Jorge Soler is a possibility, though he carries some of the same baggage as Castro, despite the fact that some of it may have been packed for him.

For obvious reasons, one can envision Kris Bryant as the Cubs’ version of Jeter, though it’s still far too early to project that sort of thing or lay that kind of expectation on a kid. At this point, it’s Anthony Rizzo who has assumed the mantle of Face of the Franchise, a role for which he seems custom-built.

I’ve got no love lost for the Yankees, but I have to admit that they sure know how to create and foster icons. Chicago’s had it’s share, but the pantheon of greats feels a little lacking of late. Jeter is just on another level from the athletes we’ve seen in the Windy City over the past couple decades.

He’s Kaner without an abused cabbie in his wake, Urlacher with better taste in women (really, ‘Lac, Paris Hilton?) and without the bristly attitude, or D-Rose with good knees. He’s got all of Ryan Theriot’s hustle with none of the TOOTBLAN and he’s far more awesome at baseball and, dare I say, life in general. He’s Tony Stark without the snark and Captain America with a healthy dose of publicly-acceptable promiscuity.

The obvious exception to all of this is Michael Jordan, who is clearly in a class unto himself.

And while the Cubs don’t necessarily need their own Captain, it sure wouldn’t hurt to find at least one transcendent player upon whom fans and media alike could heap expectation without fear that the resultant weight would crush the man. They need a guy who will walk through hell wearing gasoline boots and then ask for a bigger challenge.

I want to be able to look on 20 years from now as a Cubs player doffs his cap to the Wrigley faithful as they rain praise upon him in his final appearance. This time, they’ll even be able to spell “Respect” correctly, but the “C” can be the Cubs logo. Surely that’s something not even this beleaguered marketing department can fumble.

But as nice as it’d be, you can’t simply create an icon with hype and money. So as the Cubs head into an offseason that (fingers crossed) promises to kick off a return in earnest to a run of competitive baseball, I’ll be interested to see how everything comes together, whether we see one or more of these players really step forward.

Until then, I’ll just sit here amongst the ashes with the Brewers fans, watching the playoffs and hoping my team can make it back there soon.

So here’s a metaphorical tip of the cap to you, Derek Jeter. May your retirement send your soon-to-be-former team into an epic tailspin and may the Cubs find a player of your ilk and the lost success of the Yankees posthaste.

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