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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Derek Jeter will walk off the baseball field for the final time as a player this weekend, taking his mystique, his iconic No. 2 jersey and a fistful of World Series rings along with him.
For the better part of two decades the New York Yankees great graciously accepted the role as the face of Major League Baseball. Scandal came and went. Dynasties rose and fell.
Jeter remained. Through Barry Bonds and A-Rod. Through Roger Clemens and Ryan Braun. Through milestones and slumps. Through the Mitchell Report. Through spring trainings and October after October (and in one memorable case, November).
When he quietly slips out of the visiting clubhouse at Fenway Park and into history, the Yankees will lose more than their captain. The game will lose a Hall of Famer between the lines and an eloquent ambassador for the sport outside them.
"There will be a void that nobody will replace," Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "But there will be another opportunity for someone in some other place."
Like say, Pittsburgh or Los Angeles or a dozen other cities where a new generation of stars are poised to grab the mantle Jeter so delicately curated during 20 singular seasons that brought MLB into the 21st century.
Not that the likely candidates want to talk about it.
Press Andrew McCutchen, Mike Trout or Bryce Harper on if they're part of the group who will pick up where Jeter left off and they sound downright Jeteresque: professional and polite, even if their play screams they're more than ready to be the next chain in a link that stretches from Jeter to Cal Ripken Jr. to Mike Schmidt to Hank Aaron to Mickey Mantle and beyond.
"It really doesn't matter," said McCutchen, the reigning National League MVP. "I'm just trying to do the right thing, play the game the right way. If somebody feels I should be in that category, so be it."
The 27-year-old center fielder has already accomplished something Jeter never struggled with: transforming a moribund franchise into a contender. His trademark dreadlocks a bobbing blur as he darts around the bases, McCutchen has guided the Pirates to a second consecutive playoff berth after two decades of losing.
It's a revolution that started on March 5, 2012, when he signed a contract extension that will keep him in black and gold through 2018. It didn't matter that the Pirates were coming off their seventh straight 90-loss season. McCutchen saw a bright future where others saw a lost cause.
Now the Pirates are heading to the playoffs yet again led by an intense, charismatic and eminently talented player who has become the biggest star in a city where Sidney Crosby, Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu also work.
Jeter, though, has five World Series rings tucked away somewhere while McCutchen's fingers are currently bare save for his wedding band.
And maybe that's why it could take a handful of players to move the sport forward, rather than just one. Jeter became Jeter in October.
"He became the face for his World Series and his postseason numbers," Oakland outfielder Jonny Gomes said. "He earned it."
Want to become the face of the game? Do it when the spotlight shines brightest.
"If Mike Trout wins the World Series this year, I think he goes to the top of the list," Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "I think you could say the same with Andrew McCutchen. There are some great young players that are going to be around for a long time."
San Francisco catcher Buster Posey already has a pair of titles but also spends three hours a night working behind a mask, not the best way to raise your Q-rating. Perhaps the new face plays in a different part of California, where the unapologetically precocious Trout is the relentless turbine on a Los Angeles Angels team that includes Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton.
"Talking to other managers, no doubt Mike's the MVP of our league, but the best player in our league," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.
Whether Trout is the best player within a 30-mile radius of his home ballpark is another matter.
The scruffy 26-year-old Clayton Kershaw has baseball's second-most popular jersey behind Jeter and is the favorite to become the first NL pitcher since Bob Gibson in 1968 to win the league's MVP award.
Dodgers teammate Yasiel Puig may join the group too, provided the dynamic Cuban-born outfielder can rein himself in, both on the diamond and off.
Hailed as the baseball version of LeBron James on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old, Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper lacks Jeter's polish. Talent, Harper's got.
Harper called Jeter "irreplaceable," and the 21-year-old said he doesn't spend a lot of time worrying about his place in MLB's hierarchy.
"That should be left up to what fans think or how they feel or who ... little kids want to look at and how they want to go about having a hero and what they think the game should be like or how it should be played," he said. "If that's some guy in this league, we'll let fans figure that out."
And it will be figured out after Jeter's gone.
"Obviously he's going to be missed but he's not the game of baseball," said Pirates catcher Russell Martin, who spent two years playing alongside Jeter. "The game is going to keep going on after he plays. No matter who you are as a person, the game is going to keep evolving, hopefully in the right direction."
One that will be steered by the next wave as Jeter waves goodbye.
AP Sports Writers Janie McCauley in San Francisco, Howard Fendrich in Washington, D.C., Ron Blum in New York and freelance writer Amy Jinkner-Lloyd in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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