This is a breather from our long national Trump Trauma and a chance to focus on an event today that brings New Yorkers and baseball fans around the nation together. The Yankees are retiring Derek Jeter’s №. 2 uniform number tonight and dedicating a monument and plaque in his honor in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park.
This is an appraisal and an appreciation of the Yankee shortstop. So if you are not a baseball aficionado, this is the time to tune out, because in the next few minutes we are going to get pretty deep in the baseball weeds.
Let’s start with the appreciation.
Jeter is lionized in New York and among baseball fans and players around the country because he is generous with his time, showing up for charity events, taking time with kids and mentoring younger players at every level of professional baseball. His Turn 2 Foundation tries to promote and reward academic excellence and leadership development, focusing on child development and not sports. His appeal crosses over to women because of his cross cultural good lucks, he projects a nice guy image and gives off an aura that he is comfortable in his own skin.
He is one a handful of athletes, like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, whose notoriety has spread well beyond sport across cultural and racial boundaries. Advertisers love him, and during his 20-year career, in addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars he has earned from baseball, he has probably earned at least that much from endorsements and investments outside baseball. Currently, he is the face of a consortium, along with Jeb Bush, trying the buy the Miami Marlins.
They even respect him in Boston, a feat no Yankee before him was able to achieve. Take a look at Jeter’s schmalzy “Tribute to New York” on his website, The Player’s Tribune, to understand the depth of his appeal.
Besides being a player who has earned a place among the best ever to play the game, he is revered as a public figure who has never made a mis-step, who never did anything to embarrass himself, the sport or his teammates, a role model for kids — hell for everyone. He is more than a master of the athlete’s acquired skill of the innocuous sound bite. He has never avoided the press, never revealed more of himself than he wanted to, but you always came away from an interview believing you were seeing the real Derek Jeter, even though you weren’t.
I do believe that if Jeter wanted to run for an open U.S. Senate seat in New York, either as a Democrat or Republican, he would be elected in a landslide. And, like the Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Bradley before him, who served in the Senate for 18 years and made a serious presidential run, Jeter would undoubtedly be a serious and studious politican. A big step up from the second-raters in Congress today.
The Baseball Player
You talk to a Yankee fans and many think that Jeter was the greatest player ever to put on a Yankee uniform. In a Quinnipiac University poll taken a few years ago, he tied Babe Ruth as the greatest Yankee ever. As good as Jeter was, there are probably half a dozen better ballplayers before him who wore the Yankee pinstripes, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra and Ford among them.
Although Yankee fans today regard him as the greatest shortstop ever, he probably was not even the best shortstop of his time. Alex Rodriguez, who soiled his reputation with serial lies and use of performance enhancing drugs, was a more talented player offensively and defensively. Early in Jeter’s career, when Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra, the great Boston shortstop, were in their primes, Jeter was considered third in that group. Garciaparra never fulfilled his potential because he was injury prone.
Jeter’s career statistics are excellent. He ranks sixth in the list of base hits, 11th in runs scored, and fifth in singles. Advance baseball metrics place his career offensive performance among the top tier of shortstops. Only Honus Wagner and Alex Rodriguez are ahead of him.
Defensively, not so much. I didn’t miss many innings of Jeter’s 20-year career, and he probably as good as anyone catching up to balls in the shortstop hole and making the long throw to first, especially the acrobatic jump throw. But on balls up the middle, even in his prime, he was just average, and later on in his career, slow. I used to joke that even though Jeter won five Gold Glove Awards, three of them should have gone to Mark Teixeira. After the Yankees signed Teixeira, who is probably one of the top 10 defensive first basemen in baseball history, Jeter would field a ball and, without looking, heave it toward first. If it was in the Yankee Stadium zip code, Teixeira would catch it. Jeter did not win any Gold Gloves when iron-handed, lead footed Jason Giambi manned first base.
Ranking the shortstops, Jeter comes in fifth or sixth. Honus Wagner, who played in the late 19th century through World War I, is indisputably the best shortstop ever, and those advanced baseball metrics place Wagner among the three best players of all time, along with Ruth and Willie Mays, certainly no lower than fifth. Offensively, Wagner is by far the best shortstop ever and defensively, among the top five or six.
Arky Vaughn was a doubles-and-triples juggernaut for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1930’s and 40's. Vaughn’s career was shortened by World War II and a number of management salary disputes which sidelined him for all or parts of a few seasons in his prime. Cal Ripken Jr. also ranks ahead of Jeter. Ripken had 431 homers, 160 more than Jeter, and defensive metrics place him ahead of the Yankee shortstop. And it is a toss-up whether you would take Robin Yount ahead of Jeter. Yount, like Jeter, a member of the 3,000 hit club, split his career between centerfield and shortstop, and won Gold Gloves at each position for the Milwaukee Brewers.
I would take Jeter, although it is a close call.
Alex Rodriguez is the shortstop wild card. Rodriguez’ offensive career statistics are near-Ruthian, and as a shortstop, was consistently of Gold Glove caliber. Had Rodriguez not compromised his integrity by taking performance enhancing drugs and cast doubt on the validity of his statistical accomplishments, baseball fans would be arguing whether he or Wagner were the best. Instead, we argue whether or not Alex Rodriguez should get any Hall of Fame consideration despite his indiscretions and dishonesty.
So Jeter was great, not the greatest, probably a “B” level Hall of Famer. All in all, not bad, but he was not Roy Hobbs.
He was a performer of the highest caliber, possessing an unfailing flair for the dramatic, for the clutch play or hit at just the right time on the biggest stage with the most people watching, an important post-season game or The World Series.
To coincide with Jeter’s plaque dedication today, the Yankees this weekend held a contest, asking fans to vote on Jeter’s 16 most “iconic” moments (One thing you can say about the Yankees, they mine their marketing trove.). And the choices were not hyped, no manufactured moments. “The Catch” (apologies to Willie Mays), when Jeter chased a foul pop into the third base stands to help win a 2004 playoff game against the Red Sox (hurtling a wall and tumbling into the second row, bloodying himself in the process); “The Flip”, which turned around a playoff series against the Oakland A’s with a blind, running backhand flip of an errant outfield throw, catching a runner at home plate at a crucial moment; his walk-off home run in the 2001 World Series; going five-for-five and reaching the 3,000-hit milestone with a home run off one the best pitchers in baseball; stroking a game-winning walk-off single in the last at-bat of his career; coming through in the clutch time-and-time only burnished his reputation.
So here’s to you, Captain. Here’s to your parents, who obviously did a great job. Enjoy the fan adulation. you earned it. Enjoy your plaque and your place in Monument Park. You were a great ballplayer, not the greatest, but as a human being, you are right up there at the top.