All those Photoshop-altered images of Derek Jeter in a Red Sox uniform, Derek Jeter in a Rockies uniform?
It was fun to imagine that, for some crazy reason, Yankees management would let the contract negotiations get out of hand, and Jeter would end up somewhere other than New York in the twilight of his career.
The Yankees and Jeter made up (albeit not without Jeter saying he didn't like his birthright being toyed with), but that wasn't the end of it. Jeter went into last season with the gloom of the contract haggling, and the sentiment that he was a declining player who would only see his production drop.
New York fans weren't too thrilled, either. Who did these young Steinbrenners think they were? They wouldn't dare.
Jeter did have a wretched start to the season, his batting average hovering around call-up catcher territory until he ended up on the disabled list for a bit, another rarity for Mr. Indestructible. What had been a great offseason storyline of Derek Jeter vs. the world faded uncomfortably into a tale many had suggested but few had thought would actually come true: Jeter was creaking. He looked old. His hits were all grounders that snuck around infielders' gloves. He didn’t have power. Forget home runs — the guy couldn't get a double. His poor range at shortstop was even worse. His upbeat demeanor, his staying the course now seemed to be a form of denial.
He reached 3,000 hits last summer, but it was at a point where everyone cheered him the way they do when grandpa gets his war medals because the local officials realized he is about to go. Jeter was watched with a sad nostalgia, an extra push of hope. He hated the attention.
Jeter's decline presents an interesting problem for Boston fans.
On one hand, he's the definitive Red Sox killer, a player who has had his hand in Boston heartbreak far too many times.
As fun as it was to imagine Jeter being forced to sign with another team and wear another uniform, no one in New England was really hoping it would be the Red Sox. It's nice when you win the girl who dumped you for your best friend, but then once you get her, you're sort of like, "Eh, this is always going to be weird, no matter how glad I am that I won."
It's easy for Red Sox fans to be happy to think Jeter is fading. That's one less bat they have to worry about that's troubled them for the past decade or two. That's one less image of what New York is that the Red Sox don't want to be.
But, on the other hand, Jeter's struggles can be tough for Red Sox fans. That's because, when Jeter does well, it's a win for baseball. Of all the Yankees they can loathe, Jeter's been different.
Hate him or not, if you take a poll of all major leaguers or all Boston players, the words that always get tossed around in regard to Jeter are "respect" or "class." The Red Sox haven't been shy about saying they admire the guy. He has something that's rare in modern sports, where self-cheerleading, giant egos, big contracts and sniping are the norm. Jeter treats his teammates, coaches and owners with loyalty and deference, and he can rarely be caught saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. He treats people well, and he plays the game well. He's not often caught in cringe-worthy situations, and he's done enough things the right way for enough years that his mistakes are regarded as just mistakes.
Beyond that, Jeter is an incredible player. His batting numbers are Hall of Fame-caliber, and as suspect as his fielding has been, he's anchoring a spot where you have to be above decent to even do fairly well.
Jeter has been the image of decency and excellence in Major League Baseball throughout his career, and that's only served the game well and added to his on-field achievements.
He's the kind of guy that invites comparisons, or measuring up to. When people look at, say, Dustin Pedroia, they say, "This guy could be the captain. He plays with so much heart, and he's great with his bat. He could be, you know, the Derek Jeter of the Red Sox for years to come." And they're not insulting him. What other Yankee can you say that about?
Of course, it's easier to say these nice things when Jeter is hitting his 3,000th against another team, or when he's hustling to a .200-something average as the season winds down. The Yankees getting clipped early in the playoffs last season didn't hurt, either.
But are the sentiments real? Does Jeter still get the eulogies about how great he's been to baseball if he isn't, in fact, dead to the game yet?
Yes, Red Sox players respect Jeter, and Red Sox fans can mention his name without the same sort of twitching as when talking about other Yankees. (Or, God forbid, A-Rod, who is in an "ick" class of his own.) But what do you do when the honorable foe you were willing to tip your cap to as he rode into the sunset comes back? What happens when he starts being the reason your team isn't winning?
It's great for the game of baseball when a solid player like Jeter makes a comeback, when he starts playing like he did when he was a kid. He's hitting all over the place, running out grounders, and reminding everybody that there is a baseball that exists without steroids and egos and backbiting.
Look at Jeter! He was leading the Yankees in total home runs! At this pace, he'll challenge Babe Ruth's mark for homers in a season! Look at him steal that base! He's faster down the line than most 20-year-olds! Look at him unite that clubhouse! Look at –
OK, too much. You can clap and cheer for the man when he's walking into the sunset, his 3,000 hits over his shoulder and his head hung because there’s no room in professional baseball for an old man who can't get his bat around anymore.
But this Jeter — this Jeter can go. Red Sox fans will respect him tomorrow, laud him when he makes it to the Hall of Fame. By that point, Boston will be hosting parades for Jeter. Because he'll be out of the lineup. Because he won't be planting at short, rising in the air, and whipping a throw to first just in time. Because he won't be uniting a bunch of millionaires to play like they love the game. Because he won't be keeping the Yankees together when they should be squabbling, picking on their manager, self-imploding. Because he won't be scooting home runs over short right-field porches.
Because he won't be bringing his team into Boston and spoiling Fenway Park's 100th.
It was cute, wasn't it? Imagining Jeter in a Red Sox uniform? Imagining he was ready to take his little black bat and go home?
Looks like the winner is back, and that's the last thing the Red Sox need right now.