In Derek Jeter’s younger days, when the star shortstop led the New York Yankees to the World Series year after year, he stood as a symbol of Yankee dominance and a source of endless Boston Red Sox frustration.
He was smooth in the field, poised under pressure, and dated models and actresses. Many Sox fans couldn’t stand the sight of him.
But times have changed, and as Red Sox fans eventually celebrated three championships, they began to see their erstwhile nemesis in a more charitable light. This weekend, as Jeter comes to Fenway Park for the final series of a storied Hall of Fame career, many cannot help but extend a grudging respect.
“The fact that we finally won it all took a lot of the edge off,” said Rusty Sullivan, executive director of The Sports Museum, located in the TD Garden. “Since that dynamic changed, he falls into the category of respected opponent.”
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Red Sox fans fiercely believed their shortstop at the time, Nomar Garciaparra, was a better player than Jeter. But as the Yankees won four championships in five years, Jeter nearly always came out on top, earning a reputation as a consummate winner.
By staying with one team his entire career, Jeter was a latter-day Carl Yastrzemski, the beloved Boston outfielder who played from 1961 to 1983. It was nearly impossible to imagine either player on any other team, fans said.
And while Jeter’s cool demeanor struck many as calculated, his accomplishments were undeniable.
“He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer,” said Mike Davison of Foxborough, who attends about 15 games at Fenway each year. “You appreciate the fact that you’re watching a legend.”
Davison said it would be strange to watch the Yankees without Jeter, as if something were missing.
“It’s the end of an era,” he said. “It won’t quite be the same Yankees of old.”
Sullivan said he thinks fans have grown nostalgic for the epic Yankees-Red Sox clashes of Jeter’s prime, particularly the seven-game classics in 2003 and 2004. Before the Sox finally vanquished the Yankees, fans heaped their frustrations on Jeter, whose good looks and golden-boy image made him an easy target. But in hindsight, many fans see Jeter in a more sympathetic light.
“Those were special times,” Sullivan said. “Jeter broke our hearts, but we finally broke through.”
For others, old grudges die hard. Jeter was vastly overrated, many fans said, especially on defense. The news media made him out to be a saint. His trademark fist pump was always annoying, like his opposite-field bloopers that always seemed to drop in. Perhaps his most famous moment, the so-called “flip play” against Oakland in the 2001 playoffs, was a fluke, some grumble.
“I find him irritating,” said Luke Salisbury, a longtime Red Sox fan and author of “The Answer Is Baseball.” “I think of him as Eddie Haskell on ‘Leave It To Beaver.’ He’s a poster boy for the bland.”
Still, Salisbury thinks that the years have mellowed Red Sox fans and that they will send Jeter off with a flourish, a sincere show of hard-won admiration.
“I think he’ll get a gentleman’s salute on the way out,” he said.
Around Fenway Park Thursday, many Red Sox fans were fairly indifferent about Jeter’s final games, but some acknowledged the brilliance of his career. They could admit it now.
“The World Series wins have helped,” Davison said.
But Mike and Amber Cox, Red Sox fans visiting from Mississippi, haven’t forgotten the painful defeats to Jeter-led teams. Plus, the mystique surrounding Jeter always rubbed them the wrong way.
“Glad to see him go,” said Mike Cox.
Others took the high road. Jeter had been a hated Yankee, linchpin of a dynasty that for a time seemed like it might never end. But even heated rivalries are sometimes secondary.