Sports

Derek Jeter and the Weird History of Farewell Tours

Saying goodbye is hard to do, especially if you're an iconic professional athlete.

by Patrick Redford
Sep 24 2014, 3:05pm

Photo by Brad Penner -- USA TODAY Sports

Tomorrow, Derek Jeter will play his last game in Yankee Stadium. Jeter was a very good player on a lot of very good teams, but his retirement has become cause for disproportionate deification by both baseball and the media. For all his talents, Jeter is just a baseball player whose fame has been enhanced both by perfectly targeted marketing and an ongoing public obsession with the details of his post-sex gift baskets. The idea of Jeter is the cause of this lavish farewell tour, and everyone has treated him like a noble monarch.

Unsurprisingly, Jeter's league-wide sendoff is the most extensive in sports history, but it's hardly the first. I went looking for precedents and while there hasn't been anything as tightly controlled and grandiose as the Jetering, the end of great sporting careers make for a confluence of sepia-toned nostalgia and outright sadness. Consider the protracted farewell of the only American athlete more synonymous with Nike than The Jeets.

Michael Jordan's two seasons with the Washington Wizards between his second and last retirements were quixotic years for him. Jordan put up good individual numbers, but the Wizards went 37-45 both years and missed the playoffs. Washington was content to let him run the team into the ground and mangle Kwame Brown's development because everyone involved was getting rich and Jordan got to keep polishing his ego, which was the whole damn point. His Wizards days were their own kind of farewell tour, a victory lap that allowed Jordan to state the obvious: I can come back whenever I please.

Instead of leaving with an iconic game-winner in the 1998 finals, Jordan's last game was a 20-point loss to the Sixers. Teddy Pendergrass sang the national anthem. Eric Snow of all people gave him a golf cart before the game. The basketball didn't matter, just like the baseball won't really matter during Jeter's last game, but there was an elegaic sadness to it. Jordan's legendary competitive streak finally revealed itself as hubris during those later years. The best basketball player of the NBA's boom era capped off his career playing with mediocre yes men who were there merely to pass him the ball. He could have walked away as the best player alive on one of the best teams ever. Still, nothing beats the last days of El Barrilete Cósmico.

Diego Maradona's global esteem easily surpasses that of both Jordan and Jeter, but he got chased out of soccer after failing a series of drug tests. He popped a positive for ephedrine at the 1994 World Cup, which ended his international career. In keeping with Maradona's mythological nature, his autobiography has a claim that "several hundred people in Bangladesh had attempted mass suicide as a result." It's unclear if this is true—The Hindu makes a very casual mention of it in 2006—but he published it.

He played his last game, for Boca Juniors, on October 25, 1997. It was sad. A comically engorged Maradona couldn't run much at all by that point, so he resorted to distributing from the center—the greatest playmaker in soccer history had nothing left to give but his presence. That 1997 season wasn't even about capping off a celebrated career. He was trying to hold on as long as he could, as his addiction raged and his body betrayed him. Maradona was wringing every last drop from his career, way past the point when he should've been playing. Derek Jeter is far from his prime, but he's no late-period Maradona. For all the annoyance Jeter's farewell tour has engendered, going out like Maradona isn't something to wish on anyone.

Previous New York superstars have hung it up to far less fanfare: Mickey Mantle played his last game in Yankee stadium in 1968 in front of less than 6,000 fans. Babe Ruth tried to steal Yankees manager Joe McCarthy's job before leaving New York for the Boston Braves, and finally fizzling out after a couple of months. Joe Namath was waived by the Jets prior to the 1977 season, washed up in Los Angeles, and threw 4 interceptions for the Rams on Monday Night Football in his last game. Luckily for Jeter, his fading skills have been overshadowed by the narrative of his retirement.

In terms of comparisons, Jeter's closest analogue is the farewell tour of Sachin Tendulkar, an Indian cricket player many consider to be the greatest of all time. When he retired last November, India Today threw an all-day conclave for him, where celebrities, friends, and competitors showed up to rhapsodize on his greatness. He arranged his last match for India to be played in his hometown of Mumbai and tickets hit the black market at a 4000% markup. He didn't get the year-long Jeter praise-job, but he made the Indian sports world stand still on a dime. While Jeter exists as something of a manufactured icon, Tendulkar simply is an icon.

Regardless, the problem isn't that Jeter's having a farewell tour—he put in his time and much of the baseball world wants to recognize him—it's the length and coverage of the tour. A 162 game long parade was always going to become tiresome, thanks in no small part to the media so eagerly lapping up the festive minutiae of it all. But the tour itself is novel, because history shows that picking a good ending point is usually impossible, even for the best athletes.

His now former teammate Mariano Rivera had it right last year, walking away with his powers largely intact, even if his team can no longer say the same about itself. Jeter's ending point, like Rivera's, won't be punctuated by some grand moment of glory, but he's already got plenty of those.