The End Is Near

If you don’t know that this is Derek Jeter’s last season of playing major league baseball for the New York Yankees, you live a very sheltered life. For many of us, 2014 has been one long farewell tour, with every moment informed by the fact that this could be the last time that Jeter does this or does that (I predict we’ve already seen the last time Derek Jeter saw postseason play, and that’s when he went down with an ankle injury that marked the beginning of the end to his playing career–the 2012 playoffs).

Moreover, for Yankee fans this isn’t the first farewell tour we’ve experienced. Just last year Mariano Rivera, also returning from a season-ending injury, announced that 2013 would be his last season. That announcement also sparked a farewell tour, with teams giving him gifts, an emotional All Star Game appearance, and ample press coverage capped by this event:

With Jeter, we’ve seen even more fuss, with commercials, various hashtags, and even more souvenirs than marked Rivera’s retirement.

It was not always this way.

Mickey Mantle’s last great hurrah in pinstripes came in the 1964 World Series, where he hit three home runs, marked by a walkoff blast at Yankee Stadium in Game 3.

(Mantle recalls that home run here. More details are here.)

That said, Mantle was already falling apart. By 1967 he had moved to first base, his batting average sagged (eventually bringing his lifetime average under .300), and his bat, while still potent, connected for far fewer home runs (82 over those last four years).

Two of them were particularly memorable, however. First came home run number 500, at a time when very few people had reached that mark:

The Mick beat the shift …you can’t position a fielder in the stands (unless, of course, you’r Derek Jeter). Number 2, by the way, was third base coach Frank Crosetti.

If you watch the entire clip. you can see that Mantle was a shadow of what he had been.

The second memorable Mantle homer cam near the end of the 1968, when Denny McLain of the Detroit Tigers, on his way to a 31-win season (they last time that’s been done), decided to give Mantle a sendoff gift of his own, one that enabled Mantle to pass Jimmy Foxx for third (at the time) on the all-time home run list.

Mickey Mantle rounds third after homering off Denny McLain, September 19, 1968. [New York Times]
(Mantle recalls that moment here. So does the Detroit catcher, who was not Bill Freehan. McLain recalls it here [go to the 6:10 mark]. Note the differences in recollections, including McLain’s change of heart about who was catching. So much for the “they were there, so they should know” school of historical evaluation. The box score proves helpful).

Mantle struggled through the remainder of that season, but it was not until the Yankees went to spring training in 1969 that he announced his retirement. It would be left to a young Bobby Murcer to attempt to fill his cleats (Murcer would start the season at third, endangering the lives of fans who sat behind first, and was shifted to the outfield, eventually inheriting Mantle’s center field position).

Mantle murcer 1969

That June, the Yankees held a day for Mantle to mark the retirement of his number and the placement of a plaque to him in center field (this was in the days before Monument Park at either the renovated stadium or the new ballpark).

(If you want the full ceremony, go here. Even in 1969 some Yankee fans booed Roger Maris. You’ll also see the last player prior to Thurman Munson to wear #15, Tom Tresh.)

And here, at last, is Mantle’s last home run at Yankee Stadium …

I guess Ford took lessons on grooving a pitch from McLain.

I suspect we may never see Jeter play in an Old Timers Game at Yankee Stadium. Even Joe DiMaggio came to understand that playing in such games, while fun, diminished the brand, especially when fans in attendance had never seen him play for real.

So savor the moments that remain, now that you know what’s ahead … and how it used to be.