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Hartnett: Derek Jeter, The White Knight Of Baseball, Delivers In All-Star Farewell

By Sean Hartnett
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Derek Jeter has always been the shining beacon of baseball. He entered the majors in 1995 as a lanky 21-year-old rookie sporting a Kid 'n Play flattop, high-top spikes and a megawatt smile that attracted roars and shrieks from all corners of old Yankee Stadium.

Five World Series titles, five Gold Gloves, five Silver Sluggers and 14 All-Star Game appearances later, Jeter is the granddaddy of America's national pastime. And my, how the time has passed.

Although Jeter's hairline has receded with age, his smile remains as bright as ever. His love and enthusiasm for the game hasn't wavered, even at the age of 40. He's still the kid who plays hardball with a casual, carefree smile and an unrivaled desire to succeed.

Leading up to Tuesday's All-Star Game, a collection of columnists argued that Jeter shouldn't have been involved in the 85th edition of the midsummer classic. Once the starters were announced, scribes also opined that the Yankees captain should be stuck at the bottom of the American League lineup due to his underwhelming slash-line of .272/.324/.322.

Since Commissioner Bud Selig's "This One Counts" declaration, writers have taken baseball's annual diversion way too seriously. Selig's absurd brainchild of using the game to determine home-field advantage for the World Series has never rung true with the spirit of the All-Star Game. "This One Counts?" No, it shouldn't. The All-Star Game was never intended to be anything more than an exhibition showcase put on for the fans' enjoyment.

At the All-Star Game, Jeter silenced his critics in typical Jeterian fashion. His collection of detractors included one fan at Target Field who yelled out "overrated" just moments before Jeter led off the bottom of the first with an opposite-field double via his trademark inside-out stroke.

Enjoyment is precisely what Jeter delivered to all who gathered at the ballpark in downtown Minneapolis on Tuesday night.

Target Field onlookers banded together to produce a full-on Jeter lovefest. He went on to finish the game 2-for-2 with a double and one run scored. He became the oldest player in All-Star Game history to record two hits, passing Boston Red Sox great and Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, who previously accomplished the feat at 39. The crowd summoned Jeter for a curtain call as Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" was played over the sound system when he was replaced by Alexei Ramirez at the top of the fourth inning. Even that one hostile spectator must have been compelled into clapping politely when Jeter left the diamond.

After all, what hasn't Jeter done for his sport?

Through all the embarrassments and controversies of Selig's stormy tenure, Jeter has served as the game's sterling poster boy. His sparkling image helped the national pastime through its darkest times. Fans could always point to him as the guy who was unequivocally playing it clean. Jeter held the sanctity of the sport together like the stitches of the official Rawlings game ball bearing the commissioner's signature.

Back in 1996, when Jeter embarked on his first full season with the Yankees, baseball's Steroids Era was in full effect. Balls were flying out of parks in record numbers. The game's resurgence following the 1994 strike-shortened season was carried on the shoulders of hulking sluggers Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. Each of their legacies was torn down amid a cloud of performance-enhancing drug revelations, suspicions or admissions.

While countless others gave in to temptation of the pill, the needle and an assortment of designer steroids, Jeter remained the never-tainted white knight of baseball. His standing within the game and ultimate legacy is impervious.

When the game was besieged by the fallout stemming from the BALCO scandal, Jose Canseco's accusations and the Mitchell Report, Jeter helped shield baseball from a constant round of bullets.

Now in 2014, he stands alone as the game's most recognizable face in the final stretch of his illustrious career. The lone, unanswered question is whether Jeter's city-to-city farewell tour will include one last dance in the playoffs.

There are just 68 games left on the Yankees' 2014 regular season schedule. The Bombers return to action on Friday night in the Bronx against the visiting Cincinnati Reds.

Three and a half games currently separate the 47-47 Yankees from reaching the second wild card play-in spot. The division-leading Baltimore Orioles hold a five-game advantage over New York in the AL East standings. On paper, neither deficit is unattainable, but the injury-battered Yankees have endured pitfalls at every juncture.

The Yankees are crossing their fingers in hope that sensational staff ace Masahiro Tanaka can avoid Tommy John surgery. Ivan Nova already has fallen victim to season-ending Tommy John surgery. Rapidly declining lefty CC Sabathia is probably done for the year due to a troubling right knee. Oft-injured righty Michael Pineda could provide a boost by returning in August. Without enticing prospects to dangle in trade discussions, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman will have a difficult time surrounding Jeter with the arms and talent required to secure a playoff berth.

Then again, Jeter's remarkable career has taught us one thing more than any other: never count him or the Yankees out. The word impossible is absent from the captain's vernacular.

However Jeter's final season ends, he will leave an enormous void to be filled -- not just in the Bronx, but also as the game's foremost statesman. He's carried that torch for decades.

In 2015, someone else will have to step forward to assume the mantle as baseball's golden boy.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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