Derek Jeter represented everything a superstar should be
So fatigued and dispirited was Yankees righthander David Cone as he walked off the mound in Game 5 of the 1995 American League Division Series in Seattle that for the next week he would seldom leave his New York apartment and he could not raise his right arm enough to even comb his air. Cone threw 147 pitches -- still the most in any LDS game -- the last of which resulted in a bases-loaded walk that tied a game the Yankees would lose. What happened when a forlorn Cone reached the dugout provided a subtle hint of what the next two decades in baseball would look like. The first one to get off the bench to console and congratulate him was a 21-year-old kid who wasn't even on the active roster: Derek Jeter.
Jeter was the consummate leader. He arrived in the big leagues fully baked. He understood from day one that it was better to be defined by championships than by statistics. He started with that premise, and upon that layered extraordinary talent and remarkable physical and mental toughness to become the archetype of what a Major League Baseball franchise player should be.
Jeter announced Wednesday this will be his final season playing baseball. A friend of Jeter's who did not want to be identified, and who knew the announcement was coming, said Jeter "is in a great place physically and mentally. He just feels really, really good about this." The friend said Jeter didn't want to be asked all season about retirement, and wanted to enjoy his last season without having to constantly parry the issue. He wanted to enjoy his exit with the fans, similar to how Mariano Rivera did last year.
Jeter is expected to hold a news conference next week in Tampa when the position players report to Yankees camp. He is going out on his own terms. Take a good look, folks, and appreciate one last season to watch the finest player of his generation and the greatest shortstop since Honus Wagner hung up his spikes in 1917.
"When you consider every dynamic of this sport he is the greatest player of this era," said Dodgers GM Ned Colletti. "He's a Hall of Fame player even without all the intangibles. But when you consider the championships, the character, the leadership and the way he represented baseball without fail with class and dignity and honor, there was nobody better. And he did it playing every day in the spotlight. He is everything you would want in a player."
It is true enough; such was Jeter's natural savoir faire in and out of spikes that he is the rare person whom men, women and children all wanted to follow. But the greatness of his ability actually became underrated because of the attention given his intangibles -- the way a casual fan praised them and the way a sabermetrician dismissed them.
If you would like to keep Wagner as the greatest shortstop of all time, go right ahead. The numbers are there. But keep this in mind, too: Baseball a hundred years ago, in quality, speed and skill, hardly resembled today's game; you might as well compare air travel today to air travel then. Teams would play entire games with one baseball -- even as pitchers were spitting licorice on it and fans were throwing it back to the field when it was hit foul. It was far easier for a great player to become great because of such uneven talent around him. In what we think of as the modern game, Jeter has built the best career at the position.
Alex Rodriguez? Please. The fraudulence to his career alone disqualifies him -- besides the fact that Jeter has played twice as many games at shortstop as Rodriguez. Cal Ripken? Close, but Ripken played 242 fewer games at shortstop, has 132 fewer hits, a much lower on-base percentage (.340-.381) and virtually the same slugging percentage (.447-.446). Arky Vaughan? He had more than a thousand fewer hits and never won a World Series. Ozzie Smith and his 28 career home runs? Robin Yount, who was done as a shortstop at age 28, or Ernie Banks, who was finished at the position at 30?
None of them match Jeter when it comes to the totality of the career at shortstop: the numbers, the longevity and the championships. Only Wagner has more hits, only Rodriguez has more runs, and, assuming Jeter plays at least 40 games there this year, only Omar Vizquel will have played more games at the position. Now when you add on the intangibles, Jeter becomes even more of the once-a-century shortstop. At the root of those intangibles are his parents, Dot and Charles. When you are around Jeter enough you cannot help but be impressed with how he was raised. In manner and strength, his reliability is extraordinary.
One day early in spring training 1997, just as Jeter was making it big on Broadway, Yankees manager Joe Torre called Jeter into his office.
"I know there are a lot of distractions out there," Torre told him. "You're a single guy in New York, you just won the Rookie of the Year award and you're a New York Yankee world champion. I just want to make sure you take nothing for granted."
"Don't worry, Mr. T.," Jeter said. "Baseball is the most important thing to me and always will be. I won't be distracted by anything."
Said Torre, "Never worried about him again. Never had to say anything else to him in all the years."
Three years later in the Subway Series against the Mets, the pressure weighed heavily on the Yankees in Game 4. They had lost Game 3 at Shea Stadium. The club was launching its own television network and the only disgrace worse to owner George Steinbrenner than losing the World Series would be to lose it to the Mets. Just before the game, with a wink in his eye, Jeter said to Torre, "I got you."
When Bobby Jones threw the first pitch over the plate Jeter smashed it for a home run. The series essentially was over at that moment.
Everywhere you turned in October after October there was Jeter. He was his own serial drama, a precursor to The Sopranos or Homeland. Playoff games became Jeter episodes. The Jeffrey Maier Homer. The Flip Game. The Leadoff Homer. Mr. November. The 5-for-5. And there was always that signature moment the camera loved: the fist pump after the last out.
Jeter was the most important force in the greatest dynasty in the expansion era, and, as a beloved iconic championship player in New York, the single most valuable player in the period of enormous economic growth for the industry. In his first eight full seasons in the majors (1996-2003), Jeter and the Yankees won 64 percent of their games and went 16-4 in postseason series, winning four World Series and missing two others by three games. During his 19 years, the Yankees have a .599 winning percentage with Jeter on the field (1,653-1,107, including postseason play).
Jeter didn't thrive on pure talent. When he showed up for instructional camp, coach Brian Butterfield had to teach him how to catch a baseball; Jeter had to learn to "take" the ball with his gloved hand and break his habit of always "giving" with it. He hit .210 in rookie ball and made 56 errors in his first full season in the minors. He hit like a man fending off a swarm of bees; his left elbow would flail out and away from his body and still does. He runs like a marionette, with elbows and knees askew. But something always stood out about the way Jeter carried himself.
"Right away it was obvious that the players -- you would notice it right away -- the players gravitated toward him," Butterfield said. "He was very well liked. He had a great disposition, a good sense of humor. He had a smile on face. When he got to working, that grin would melt into a serious look."
The quality in Jeter that may be least appreciated is his ferocity. He had absolutely no use for negativity and seethed when reporters would fish for a negative angle.
"I'm an optimist by nature," he once told me. "That's why when it comes to any negative stuff, I don't like to hear about it, I don't like to read about it, I don't like to know about it. I try to be positive."
For years reporters brought up the "eventual" move to another position, yet Jeter, like Barry Larkin and Smith, will leave the game having nothing to do with giving up shortstop. He was notoriously stubborn when it came to injuries, typically refusing x-rays on the grounds that they were meaningless because, no matter what they showed, he was playing anyway. When the bone in his ankle cracked in 2012, Jeter refused to be carted off the field. And he did not tolerate teammates who took days off or cut corners.
"One day in Kansas City," Torre said, "[reliever] Paul Quantrill came up to me unsolicited and just said, 'You know, I knew Jeter was a good player. But until now, after getting to play with him, I never knew he was this good.' I always thought that was such a great compliment."
The modern sports star is a highlight package best viewed from a distance. The more we know the less we like. We prefer to leave them as connect-the-dots pictures; we'll fill in what we don't know. We excuse bad behavior or selfishness because we love the talent. Jeter is the opposite of this phenomenon. He is best appreciated not for one skill, one season or one game, but over 20 seasons in which every day was played under the highest degree of accountability in the sport: in New York as a Yankee expected to win.