Keeping Score

If Derek Jeter Wants to Limp Around, Let Him Limp Around

Why do we insist that athletes "go out on top?" If they can work, why shouldn't they?

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New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles
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The chorus is coming. In fact, it’s already started. Yankees fans and sports pundits are beginning to call for Derek Jeter — whose feeble 2013 season came to an end on Wednesday because of a left ankle injury — to pack up his cleats for good. We’ll give you, they’re saying, a pass for the .190 average over 17 games this season, as you tried to return from the broken ankle you suffered during last year’s playoffs. Nice effort, oh Captain, my Captain Clutch.

We want last season, when you batted .316 at age 38 and led the American League in hits with 216, to be our final memory of your outstanding career. Go out on a high-note. Don’t be one of those guys who limps around long after his prime: think Willie Mays stumbling with the Mets, at 42, in 1973, when he hit .211. Or Muhammad Ali, at 38, being battered by Larry Holmes. Or Michael Jordan losing with the Washington Wizards at 40.

But why the obsession with athletes “going out on top?” We lionize them: Bill Russell winning his 11th championship during his final season in 1969. Ted Williams smacking a home run in his last at-bat in 1960. Jim Brown, at age 30, walking away from football after the 1965 season. He was the NFL MVP that year.

“There’s a recency effect,” says George Goethals, a social psychologist at the University of Richmond and co-author of Heroes: What They Do And Why We Need Them. “The image we have of them is very much shaped by ‘what have you done lately for us?’”

Goethals says this dynamic holds for presidents too. For example, the last years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, post-Lewinsky, saw a booming economy. He went out with higher approval ratings than Ronald Reagan. Sure, Clinton’s laudable work with his foundation has helped boost the public’s current admiration for him. But the late-90s didn’t hurt.

(MORE: A Brief History of Brian Cashman’s Off-The-Cuff Antics)

In sports, Jeter is an especially sensitive case. He’s a “true Yankee,” we’ve been reminded over and over. His “intangibles” are worth their own wing in the Hall of Fame. He won four World Series titles in his first five seasons, then added a fifth ring four years ago. For his 3000th hit, he slugged a home run over the left field wall. Where does he stand in the Yankee pantheon? “If he ranks a bit below Babe Ruth overall, and maybe Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, too, that’s no shame,” writes John Heyman of cbssports.com. “He’s certainly somewhere in the top six, with Yogi Berra being the sixth man in an oft-debated question of greatness.”

Jeter, a part-time DH hitting .250 and a handful of home runs? Avert the eyes!

And yet, why shouldn’t Jeter, or any other star athlete, try to ply his trade — a very lucrative one, by the way — for as long he can, like any other American worker? Jeter has been playing professional baseball since he was 18 years old. This is all he knows. And even if he was just a pinch hitter, Jeter’s mere presence in the clubhouse allows him to sprinkle intangible goodness onto each and every locker.

Plus, what does one last stand, no matter how ugly it is, really cost you? Heck, Babe Ruth played in 28 lousy games for the Boston Braves in 1935. He hit .181. Yankee Stadium was still “The House That Ruth Built.”  Yankees fans will revere Jeter, whether or not he comes back, or suits up for another team if he decides to test free agency.

“If great athletes struggles at the end of his career, it doesn’t erase everything,” says Goethals. “But our ordinary memory processes makes those struggles weighty. In private, you can do what you and I are doing conversationally. ‘Yes, Willie Mays is still Willie Mays, isn’t he?’ But you have to sort it out. You have to work at it.”

The work is worth it. Hurry back, Derek. Bad ankle and all.

(MORE: For Baseball’s Most Infamous Umpire, Instant Replay Is Too Late)

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