There has been an odd habit that has become popular as the baseball summer draws to a close and subsequently is taking the career of Derek Jeter along with it. In the winter of his days as a New York Yankee, there has been a tug of war between the push to show appreciation to his career and to also humble the context in which it is given.
To that effort, I have but one question: Why? In his career, there has been no marker as a player he has not reached, nor standard of conduct he has stood below. Yet in recent weeks, from the always obligatory trolls of Twitter all the way up to the World Wide Leader-sponsored platform of Keith Olbermann, there has been a regular effort to bring a cease and desist to the celebration of what he has accomplished.
This hit yet another apex last night as he authored an eerily appropriate final chapter to his career in Yankee Stadium, by slashing an opposite-field base hit in the bottom of the 10th inning to drive in the winning run from second base after the Yankee bullpen had blown a three-run lead in the previous frame. He did what has made him the legend he is today yet again: the right play, at the right time and when it was needed. Yet while the moment impressed because it was classic Jeter, it also opened back up the floodgates of the criticism on why moments like this — in a game that doesn’t matter for a team that is eliminated from the postseason — matters at all.
So in an era where there is so much to dislike about not only baseball, but sports figures in general, with athletes being recognized for such a range of atrocities, why is there such a rush to end a parade that’s running the marathon route for all the right reasons? It is an oddly stunted movement, which has however found some entertaining justifications for its activism.
It is flat odd to not like somebody simply because many others do. But alas, that is what’s at hand right now. So in the spirit of the final leg of the “Summer of Derek,” and all that has come with it, let’s speak to a few of the most popular points that the torch-wielding townspeople have thrown from outside the castle gates this year and have one for the road, why don’t we?
1) He’s not even top 5 at his position!
Why not start it off with the most asinine of claims, why don’t we? The all-time hits king at the position (and owner of the sixth most knocks in the history of the game, period) has numbers that rival any other six position inhabitant ever across the board as well. Runs scored: most ever. Top three in doubles and home runs. The average is .309 for his career, and he has hit at least .300 12 times. The only shortstops that have reached double digits in such seasons are Honus Wagner (14) and Arky Vaughan (11). Not Cal, not Ozzie, not A-Rod. None of them. And neither Wagner nor Vaughan ever hit as many as 20 home runs in the same season while doing so, which Jeter did once while hitting .349.
Justify what you will, but putting five shortstops ahead of him isn’t happening. Hell, even two may be borderline disrespectful.
2) It’s only because he’s a Yankee … and not even one of the best ones!
Ranking the greatest Yankees of all time is a daunting task to say the least. Love them or (probably) hate them, they are the most successful professional sports franchise ever, and their players have the receipts to prove it. There’s Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, who need no introduction. There is Joe DiMaggio, who won nine World Series in 13 years, had “The Streak” and won three MVPs. There’s Mickey Mantle, who’s maybe the biggest icon not named Ruth in the baseball history. There’s Mariano the Sandman, the ultimate door slammer. In between them all, there’s Yogi, Reggie, Thurman, Lazzeri, Catfish, The Goose and a host of others who have done great things in the Bronx, and then there’s Jeter. He’s been the lynchpin of the greatest dynasty that baseball has seen since the 1950s. A five-time World Series Champion and 14-time All-Star in 20 seasons, who owns a .351 average in the Fall Classic and 10 individual postseason records.
That’s a résumé that stands at the very least at the shoulders of every great Yankee who proceeded him and easily makes him the best player in the last half century of the club. And that is good enough to put that debate to bed — especially for anybody relying on the eye test.
3) He’s just not that great compared to other greats.
He didn’t have the majestic drives of Bonds or Griffey, nor was he as awe-inspiring of a visage as the Big Unit or Nolan Ryan. He is not as physically marvelous as Willie Mays, nor as undeniable as Hank Aaron. There wasn’t the machine-like efficiency of Ted Williams or Albert Pujols, and he was not as huge of a pop culture icon as Ruth or Mantle, nor as historically relevant as Jackie, but all the while Jeter has cut a defining swath in the history of the game.
He’s a winner’s winner, the Bill Russell or Joe Montana of his game — the rare player whose name is synonymous with the victorious moment and has defined it for an era. Many will say his reputation is the product of being surrounded by great talent, but which one is better than he was? There are those who will say that he was the greater talent, but there’s nobody who will say that Alex Rodriguez made the Yankees into a better team than Jeter did. He was the bridge and the conduit that held together many Yankee teams that had collections of very good players, and even a few great ones, who were all amplified by the constant presence and dependability of their captain.
There are quantifiable measures, and then there are intangibles as well. Perhaps no player ever has weaved them together better than Jeter has.
4) It is all just too much …
You know what? Maybe it is. Maybe it is all overkill. All of the parading, the pomp and circumstance is unjustified, and he should just take his handshake, pat on the back, tip his cap to the town of the moment and move on. But the thing is that he did not ask for any of this; it was afforded to him. He became the face of the game, and the game wanted to honor him for living up to that rather daunting task. More than just what he accomplished on the field, Jeter stood under the brightest light in the game, as the figurehead for the most popular and successful team in the world, and answered the tough questions and at the tough times, while being a visage to define the good parts of an oft-dirty game.
To degrade it as “dick riding” and any other undeserved token is missing the mark by miles. The game needed him to be him, and he was unswervingly there to be himself. If you are even a distant appreciator of the game, that is something that honestly cannot be thanked enough. Even at 40 years old, he will retire as the game’s legitimate face and statesman, something that is beyond rare in a sport that has often struggled to find identifiable front-line properties for years. Of course, with the exception of #2.
As he gave his last address to Yankee Stadium in the pinstripes, he summed it up in the most Jeter of ways: with the calm, unassuming humanity that allowed him to be who he has become. “Everybody is chanting thank you, Derek, and I’m thinking, ‘For what? I’m just doing my job.’”
And what an unparalleled job he did. Let’s not try to take that from him. I’m sure in the end I will just be blamed for jumping on for the ride myself, but hey, at least I’ve got my reasons.
Related: Derek Jeter’s Nephew Pays Respect With Tip Of Cap After Walk-Off (Gamedayr)
I’m a firm believer that the closest I’ve gotten to Heaven is Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. In the meantime til we cross paths again, I’ll pass along the gospel of the Field of Dreams here, Cheap.Seats.Please, I70 Baseball, and ‘Live From The Cheap Seats’.