Don't Kill The Mellinger

Columnist Sam Mellinger's thoughts on sports and other important stuff

On Derek Jeter and gifts

06/06/2014 9:18 AM

06/06/2014 11:33 AM

Derek Jeter is one of the better shortstops that baseball has ever seen. No matter where any of us stand on any of the rest of the noise that always surrounds Jeter, we can agree on that, right? Depending on how you do the math, Jeter is certainly one of the 10 best shortstops ever and probably one of the best four or five.

He is also retiring after this season, which you might’ve heard since it’s been mentioned — by last count — 4,743,823 times. Or, if it makes for easier math, once for every two times a broadcaster or writer has drooled over the Yankees’ Captain and called him God’s favorite player or something.

Anyway, because in 2014 we apparently think such things are normal, the Royals will be honoring Jeter before the game Friday with a short video tribute and a $10,000 check for his foundation.

People in Kansas City will stand and clap politely. Some of them will take photos. And many of them will be thinking what White Sox manager Robin Ventura said before they went through this same routine in Chicago a few weeks ago.

“He’s not dying, he’s just retiring,” Ventura said. “It’s weird. I’m sure it’s uncomfortable for him going through all of it, but he’s a great player.”

Ventura is absolutely right, which begs the question: what are we all doing here?

Just checking a box that, yep, we properly recognized a retiring future Hall of Famer?

Aside from creating discomfort for the player and an artificial, somewhat commercialized “moment,” are we doing anything that wouldn’t be accomplished by him taking the lineup card out before the game or tip his cap from the visitors dugout before the first pitch?

This is apparently how it goes now. The White Sox threw in a bench made of baseball bats, which Jeter will obviously put in the living room of his 30,000 square foot home in Tampa. He can put it next to the surfboard that the Angels gave him, because we’re not sure when he’s going to find the time to surf between using the golf clubs and cowboy boots the Astros gave him.

This is, best anyone can tell, a relatively new phenomenon. There have always been select examples of a retiring sports figure being honored by an opponent. Locally, Norm Stewart took home a rocking chair from Allen Fieldhouse in 2003. George Brett announced his retirement near the end of the 1993 season, and before he played his last game at Arlington, then-Rangers owner George Bush presented Brett with a crystal shaped like Texas.

Those are special, isolated cases. Jeter’s retirement tour comes a year after former teammate Mariano Rivera did the same thing. Jason Zillo, who does media relations for the Yankees, says the team did not have a model for either player.

Part of this being such a rarity is the pieces that have to be in place. You start with a great player, of course, but it’s more than a great player. He has to be a universally respected player, a 90-percent-of-the-vote Hall of Famer the first time he’s on the ballot. And — this is the big one — he has to have announced his retirement already. Remember, Rivera said he probably would’ve retired after the 2012 if not for the torn knee shagging balls at Kauffman Stadium that ended his season in May. But he only said that after the injury, which means he was a freak accident away from missing his retirement tour.

Chipper Jones may be the pioneer of baseball retirement tours. He announced that 2012 would be his last season during spring training, and opponents scrambled for gift ideas. Four teams gave him third base — like, literally, they just pulled third base out of the ground and gave it to him — the Marlins gave him a fishing pole, the Astros gave him a cowboy hat (must be their go-to gift), the Brewers gave him a year’s supply of sausage (seriously) and the rival Mets gave him a painting that may or may not have been intentionally ugly.

The Royals are doing it right. They’ll present him with a check for his foundation, because at this point, not doing so is like showing up to a dinner party without at least a bottle of wine. But no material gifts. No sampler basket of barbecue sauce. No jazz trumpet. No crown-shaped fountain.

Because these parting gifts come with the best intentions. It’s polite. Gracious. The problem is that it turns what is ostensibly an appropriate tribute to a wonderful career into an awkward photo opp with golf clubs. It means that instead of the four rings and 3,369 hits you’re wondering what he’s going to do with a surfboard.

Basically, these retirement tours mean that Jones, Rivera and now Jeter can hold the strangest garage sales of all-time.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger.

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