The cynics will swear that Jeter was overrated until their dying day.
“Nice player,” they say. “But do we really need all this pomp and circumstance – the kayaks, the cowboy boots, the 13-foot surfboards, the appearances on national television shows, the daily legacy-sucking on Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network (YES), et cetera – for a player who never even won an MVP award and only drove in 100 runs once?”
These harsh-judging detractors may have a point. Jeter, viewed objectively, didn’t have many great seasons. He led the league in hits twice, runs once. That’s pretty much it. He didn’t smash five hundred foot home runs like Bonds, couldn’t glide around the base paths like Henderson, couldn’t do back flips at short like The Wizard. His swing was unorthodox, slightly awkward, and somewhat childlike — a seeming betrayal of the legendary suave persona he embodied to the media off the field. He is the reigning king of inside-outing a pitch into right field for a bloop single. His career was utterly devoid of peaks and valleys: the anti-Bo Jackson, a calm, glassy river flowing alongside stars that flew much higher, but also petered out much sooner.
“He is the reigning king of inside-outing a pitch into right field for a bloop single. His career was utterly devoid of peaks and valleys: the anti-Bo Jackson, a calm, glassy river flowing alongside stars that flew much higher, but also petered out.”
These same detractors will inevitably proclaim that if Jeter didn’t play for the Yankees, his farewell season wouldn’t have been nearly as celebrated as it was, and we, the general public, wouldn’t feel this overwhelming pull to regard him as the Greatest Player Who Ever lived, or something close that. But that’s precisely the thing: Jeter didn’t play for just some organization. He played for the Yankees and to strip him of that affiliation would be to miss the point entirely.
There is a certain amount of prestige that comes along with being a lifelong pinstriper, and the fact that he was able to thrive in the most unforgiving city in the country while never coming to blows with the Bloodhounds of the New York media is key to understanding why he received such a gold-studded send off – the free trips and the baskets of crabs and all the other craziness — and why everyone is trying to prove to us that he’s one of the all-time greats.
Greatness lies not only in grand statistics, but the manner in which one goes about daily business. When The Grind kicks in, how do you kick back? Jeter’s rebuttal was to be steady. He batted .290 or better in 16 of his 18 full seasons. You’ll hear the term “consummate professional” often tossed in with Jeter’s name, and for good reason. Like Ripken before him, he showed up to work every day with an admirable sort of regularity (workmanlike, as it were). Whether he went 0-for-5 with four strikeouts or 4-for-4 with two dingers, he answered questions — polite and chilled as a cucumber — from those Bloodhounds who were just drooling for a headline-grabbing quote. Jeter literally never gave them anything even mildly controversial. He never took the bait. Twenty years surrounded by vultures waiting for him to say just one boneheaded thing and he never vomited. And he’d come out the next day and do it all over again, same admirable regularity, same steady coolness. Flash of a smile and modest cock of the head.
“Greatness lies not only in grand statistics, but the manner in which one goes about daily business. When The Grind kicks in, how do you kick back? Jeter’s rebuttal was to be steady.”
Jeter somehow seemed like an everyman, yet paradoxically he was completely untouchable. One got the sense he was never revealing his full self, that he was keeping something sheathed beneath that humble exterior. But after 20 years of flawlessness in the public eye you begin to realize…this is no act. This is the authentic Derek Jeter: driven, team-oriented, focused on the task at hand. If he was playing the public in any way, he surely has a second career on Broadway come next spring.
What else does Jeter have? Moments. Career defining moments that transcend the personal and are now stitched into the historical fabric of America’s pastime. That timeless play he had against the Athletics in game three of the 2001 American League Division Series, the one now called “The Flip,” where he comes flying out of nowhere to snag an off-line throw and, in one motion, makes a perfect back-handed flip to Jorge Posada just in time nab an astonished Jason Giambi and preserve a 1-0 lead. It may be naïve to say only Jeter makes that play. But who else has?
Or how about the one against the arch rival Boston Red Sox in ‘04, “The Dive,” where he flies head-long into the seats after catching a foul ball and emerges battered and bruised, ball-in-hand? The call from Michael Kay still rings in the collective consciousness of baseball fans around the globe: “Jeter on the run, makes the play! And flies into the stands!”
And finally, the last installment in this series of classic snippets…a walk-off single in his final at-bat at Yankee Stadium. You could say the pitcher grooved a flat 86-mile per hour fastball to cater to such a result. But why be cynical? After watching Jeter say his final good-byes to a sold-out crowd chanting his perfectly symmetrical name, after he knelt down at shortstop to utter what looked like a prayer, after his young nephew tipped his cap from the stands, only the most calloused-of-heart would want to fight back the tears.
So to all of the detractors out there – specifically you, Keith Olbermann, who went out of the way to put together a seven minute segment, full of in-depth sabermetrics and fancy graphics for the sole purpose of self-importantly raining on Jeter’s farewell parade — I say to you this: put on a glove and trot out to one of the toughest positions in sports in one of the grittiest cities in the world. Bat three, maybe four times, field a few ground balls, and sit through a round of questions from coffee-breathed reporters. Go to bed. Wake-up.
Do this again. Do this two thousand, seven hundred, and forty six more times (not counting playoff games). Never break. Don’t let even a hint of dissatisfaction or ugliness bubble to the surface. Date a celebrity or two. Appear on the covers of gossip magazines all around the globe. Have the bright lights of New York fixed upon you always. Win five gold gloves, five World Series titles, a Rookie of the Year award, make 14 All-Star teams. Rightfully earn the nickname “The Captain” for an organization that has won 27 championships. Do all of this while remaining modest and grounded and well-liked and respected by everyone you encounter.
“Win five gold gloves, five World Series titles, a Rookie of the Year award, make 14 All-Star teams. Rightfully earn the nickname “The Captain” for an organization that has won 27 championships. Do all of this while remaining modest and grounded and well-liked and respected by everyone you encounter.”
Once you’re done, come tell me that Jeter doesn’t deserve to be revered as one of the greatest baseball players who ever walked the Earth.
Only then will I agree with you.
This article originally appeared in The Powhatan Today in 2015.