There will be no shortage of cheers and adoration heaped on retiring New York Yankees icon Derek Jeter this week with the shortstop’s career coming to a close after 19 illustrious seasons. Jeter will take a bow in his last game at Yankee Stadium on Thursday night, and will call it a career on Sunday against the rival Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park.
The unrelenting praise from the Yankee organization, along with the exhausting media coverage, seems to have painted a distorted picture of Jeter. Some have gone so far as to call him the “greatest Yankee ever” or the “greatest shortstop ever.” Then there are others, perhaps swayed by the obnoxious hoopla, who feel that Jeter is overrated and not deserving of the incessant adulation.
Baseball, of course, has been down this road before. In 2001, Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken was honored with a long curtain call in his final at-bat, but not before even longer standing ovations. In 2013, Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera was on the mound and pulled from the game, not by his manager, but by teammates Jeter and Andy Pettitte in an emotional farewell.
As with Rivera, the incessant outpouring of affection for Jeter might seem more nauseating than it would other baseball greats simply because it involves honoring a star in New York, a city with a reputation for exaggerating proud moments. Jeter also plays for a club that is loved and hated by baseball fans all over North America, because of their storied winning tradition.
Extended congratulations can sometimes detract from the player’s actual legacy and accomplishments. On Tuesday, Keith Olbermann of ESPN chided Jeter’s longtime former teammate Jorge Posada for placing Jeter atop the all-time great Yankees. Olbermann rattled off the names of other Yankees: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Thurman Munson, Graig Nettles, Willie Randolph, Mike Mussina and Red Ruffing.
Were all nine of those players more valuable or better than Jeter? There is no mistaking the impact of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle, but including the others may speak volumes of how Jeter’s detractors might be influenced and frustrated by his hype. Most baseball experts would scoff at the notion that Randolph accomplished more than Jeter, and comparing a shortstop to Mussina is highly curious considering Mussina is a pitcher, who just happened to spend more of his career and had more success with the Orioles than the Yankees.
Perhaps Olbermann can be excused for the oversight. Assessing Jeter’s legacy is a little more complicated than one might think. He wasn’t a power hitter, so his home run numbers are not the primary statistics to dissect. Defensively, he appeared to be overshadowed in the American League by the wizardry of Cleveland Indians stalwart Omar Vizquel.
Still, questions surround the future Hall of Famer before his final curtain call. Where does Jeter rank among Yankee greats? Where does he rank among the best-ever shortstops? Is Jeter among the best hitters ever?
It seems quite fair to omit Jeter from the honor of “greatest Yankee.” Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mantle were arguably the best players of their day. In particular, Ruth, who played from 1914 to 1935, posted mythical statistics for his era that are still discussed. Jeter, consistently an outstanding player, was rarely, if ever, in the conversation as the best player in baseball. Yet, it’s understandable to mention Jeter among the greatest Yankees because of his duration with the team, and both his consistency at or near the top of the batting order and at a demanding defensive position.
As for his place among the greatest shortstops, Jeter may deserve consideration, but is not in the same class as Ernie Banks. The Chicago Cubs legend was a two-time home run champion and finished with 512 home runs. Banks won the Gold Glove award only once compared to Jeter’s five, but the award started in 1960, and Banks began his career in 1953, and later played away from the position. Other great shortstops that many would argue are better than Jeter include Honus Wagner, Maury Wills, Barry Larkin and Ripken.
Jeter is among the greatest all-time hitters, and is currently sixth on the all-time hits list, only trailing three players since the dead-ball era: Pete Rose, Hank Aaron and Stan Musial. Many would argue that Jeter doesn’t deserve to be in the conversation because his batting average pales in comparison to the likes of Ted Williams, Tony Gwynn, Rod Carew, DiMaggio and even players in their prime like Miguel Cabrera.
In short, Jeter is neither the greatest Yankee, nor the greatest shortstop, nor the greatest hitter. But that shouldn’t detract from his positive qualities.
Sports statistics often have to be taken with a grain of salt, but Jeter has accumulated some very impressive ones. He currently has 3,461 hits, 260 homers, 1,307 runs batted in, 358 stolen bases, 543 doubles and a .440 slugging percentage. Jeter’s career batting average is .310 and his on-base percentage is .377. For someone who played 150-game seasons for most of his entire career, those numbers are quite good, considering the wear and tear that sports can have on the body.
Jeter also played his best when it mattered. His batting average was excellent with runners on (.309) and runners in scoring position (.301). Jeter’s postseason statistics were stellar as well, finishing with 20 homers, 200 hits, a .308 batting average, and a .374 on-base percentage in 650 at-bats.
The true substance of Jeter’s career was amplified by the Yankees’ acquisition of Alex Rodriguez in 2004. A superstar shortstop with a bloated contract, Rodriguez arrived in the Bronx after stints with two other teams, which was in sharp contrast to Jeter, who wore pinstripes his entire professional career. The rest of A-Rod’s career would be marred by forgettable postseason performances, as well as a confession of guilt over performance-enhancing drugs. While Jeter was being honored by teams all over baseball in 2014, A-Rod was serving a suspension for another PED violation.
But there are so many things that Jeter did that had nothing to do with stats or a box score. He played with grit and intelligence, never made excuses, and was a quality presence in the clubhouse. Jeter had a regal presence to him, and seemed to treat every at-bat or grounder up the middle like it was the most important of his career.
And that’s why he is so beloved by Yankee fans and garners the prolonged ovations. These are the same fans that revered the less-heralded Hideki Matsui and even utility man Randy Velarde for their work ethic, so it’s only natural for them to lay it on thick for Jeter. While the “Jeter Lovefest” may seem insufferable, it would be dumbfounding if there was anything less at Yankee Stadium. Jeter, after all, was born in New Jersey, was a part of five World Series titles after a drought of 18 years, and epitomized the Yankees’ high standards for success.
In a sport that often suffocates its heroes with worship, it seems only appropriate that a New York legend, no matter his place in Yankee lore or his standing among the greats of his era or position, receive an elaborate and memorable sendoff.