Derek Jeter has spoiled Yankee fans worse than Veruca Salt’s father in Willie Wonka. Since Jeter made his major league debut in 1995 he’s missed the playoffs only once (last season), won four titles, reached the World Series six times, never had a losing season, and ordered his employees to shuck 10,000 candy bars so we could all have a golden ticket.
I hope we appreciate what Jeter has done and continues to do for this franchise. Look, I understand Jeter already gets plenty of attention. Local sportswriters refuse to criticize him, Michael Kay refers to him almost exclusively as The Captain, and the national media praises everything he does with a Favre-like reverence. If you aren’t a Yankee fan and you are (still) reading this, you probably hate me. That’s fine. I get it. If you’ve decided to read the rest of this just to collect more ammunition for your forthcoming anti-Jeter salvo, that’s okay too. The purpose of this isn’t to call Jeter the best Yankee ever, or the best hitter in baseball (or even on his own team). All I want to do is make sure baseball fans appreciate Jeter while he is playing, so when he is inevitably inducted into Cooperstown, haters won’t dismiss him as an unmerited Hall of Famer who got votes only because he was captain of the New York Yankees.
Other than his defense, Jeter’s loudest critics most often attack his reputation as a clutch performer. Statisticians like Bill James have used numbers to dismiss “clutch” as an invention of uninformed and biased fans. I must politely disagree. First, I love Bill James. I agree with the theory of Moneyball and OPS and VORP, even if I don’t entirely understand the latter. However, numbers cannot tell the whole story (even though Jeter HAS the numbers, but I’ll get to that).
Numbers will tell you that Dan Marino was twice the quarterback of Joe Montana. Hell, if you ran them through the combine Marino would score better in every category. He LOOKED like a better QB. Yet if you were down 5 with 90 seconds to go and you needed someone to lead your team 80 yards to paydirt, you take 4-0 Joe. Montana was a winner, plain and simple, and he has four rings to prove it. He threw The Pass that became The Catch.
Jeter has The Relay and The Dive and four rings of his own. Anyone who has watched Jeter for at least part of his career knows he’s clutch. Bottom of the ninth, runner on second, two outs: which Yankee do you want at bat? Jeter. Better yet, ask a Red Sox fan who they DON’T want to see in that situation. There’s no doubt they would say Jeter, unless they know why you are asking and answer A-Rod just to spite you. Freaking Red Sox fans, ruining even the hypothetical. My point is this: clutch exists, whatever the numbers tell you, and Jeter is clutch.
Some flip the clutch argument around and say that Jeter is just lucky and not actually a good hitter. I would say it’s hard to be as “lucky” as Jeter for as long as he’s played. Don’t believe me? Take a look at Jeter’s Hall of Fame resume (skip this if you hate stats):
• Jeter has the 6th highest batting average (.316) among active players. Only Pujols, Ichiro (Hall of Famers both), Todd Helton, Vlad Guerro, and Matt Holliday (jury is out on all three) have higher averages. All of those players are outfielders or first baseman.
• Of the 21 Hall of Fame shortstops, only Honus Wagner (.327) and Arky Vaughan (.318) have higher career averages.
• Jeter scored his 1,500th career run on Tuesday, making him only one of four active players to reach that mark. Honus Wagner leads all Hall of Fame shortstops with 1,736 runs, meaning Jeter will probably go down as the scoringest shortstop of all time. I don’t care if scoringest isn’t a word.
• Jeter is 5th in hits (2,603) among active players and will pass guys like Jimmie Foxx and Ted Williams on the career list this season. Since Jeter averages just under 200 hits a season, we can safely assume he’ll get to 3,000 hits. Pete Rose is the only player with 3,000 or more hits not in the Hall of Fame (Palmiero and Biggio aren’t eligible yet, both have over 3,000).
• Jeter has 4 World Series rings, a Rookie of the Year Award, a World Series MVP, 9 All Star appearances, an All Star game MVP (for what it’s worth), 3 Gold Gloves (for what those are worth), and 6 (six!) of Maxim’s 100 Hottest: Jessica Alba, Vanessa Minnillo, Scarlett Johansson, Gabrielle Union, Mariah Carey and Jessica Biel.
Say what you will about his defense, but Jeter is one of the best offensive shortstops of all time. No, Jeter is not as good as A-Rod if you want to consider Rodriguez a shortstop. No, Jeter wasn’t quite as good as Nomar for a couple of the seasons Garciaparra was actually on the field. Nevertheless, Jeter is an all time great at the position and has put together an impressive body of work.
We should also acknowledge Jeter’s off the field “accomplishments”. Yeah, he bags hot famous chicks. So do a lot of athletes. It’s what he doesn’t do that’s more impressive: he keeps his private life private. A-Rod can’t go to the grocery store without ending up on the front page of the inquirer. How does Jeter go about his business in relative (to A-Rod) obscurity? For starters Jeter doesn’t go sunbathing topless in central park. He doesn’t hang out with strippers in public. Jeter doesn’t do steroids (probably), doesn’t lie about it (probably), and doesn’t fake cry about it. Whatever A-Rod does seems staged and fake. Jeter comes across as genuine, even if that authenticity is the banal lack of personality that every corporate-savvy megastar athlete must possess to stay marketable (think Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning: Gatorade and Nike millionaires all). Boring is better than false, as long as you produce on the field.
It’s hard to be the captain of the New York Yankees. Jeter has to lead the most storied franchise in baseball and must perform under the biggest microscope for the most demanding fan base in the largest city in America. “All” you have to do to please New Yorkers is pay hard and win. Done and done. Jeter has four rings and he plays the game “the right way.” He ALWAYS hustles to first. He’s never made an out for lack of effort. He’s turns groundouts into infield singles, double plays into a fielder’s choice, and his hustle has caused dozens of errors by hurried infielders. He’s a twenty million dollar man who isn’t too proud to bunt a teammate over. He dives into the stands. He leads the winningest team in sports history by example, day in and day out. It’s cliché, but it counts for something. Ask Mets fans about missed bags and lack of hustle on grounders and home run trots on balls that don’t end up leaving the park.
At the risk of sounding overly sappy, I hope we can all appreciate what Jeter is doing while he is doing it. It’s one thing to look back at a Hall of Fame career at the induction ceremony, but we have the opportunity to watch it unfold before our eyes. Keep ‘em open.
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