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History, Not Hagiography

History, Not Hagiography

If it's over, then it ended well.

This is an article from the Sept. 23, 2013 issue

Derek Jeter's last at bat of the 2013 season, perhaps the last of his career, was a sharp two-out single to center against the Red Sox on a gorgeous late-summer day at Yankee Stadium. The hit knocked in a run, and as has happened countless times over the last 18 years, the home crowd came to its feet for the Yankees' captain. Jeter left the game after reaching first base, feeling pain in the surgically repaired left ankle that, along with a sore quadriceps, forced him to miss all but 17 games this season. He was placed on the disabled list last week and will not play again this year, even if the Yankees advance to the postseason.

Jeter is 39, and so the question must be asked, Is this the end? If it's over, then he had an amazing ride. He has 3,316 career hits, five World Series rings, a Rookie of the Year award and a place in the pantheon not just of Yankees legends but also of the game's best shortstops—he's one of the five best to play the position. You cannot tell the story of baseball without talking about Derek Jeter. His recovery of an errant throw from foul territory to nail Jeremy Giambi at the plate in the 2001 AL Division Series is now simply The Flip. His diving, face-plant-into-the-seats catch of a pop-up in the summer of '04 is one of the signature moments of the Yankees--Red Sox rivalry. Jeter is even a key signpost in the sabermetric revolution. The debate over how good a defensive shortstop he is has raged for 15 years, with the statheads on one side and a pile of Gold Glove Awards on the other.

Jeter is so wrapped in mythology that any measure of his career must walk the line between history and hagiography. And while his talent—and the personal characteristics that have allowed to him to leverage it—are undeniable, his narrative has been shaped as much by events outside his control as those within them. Five players were selected ahead of him in the 1992 draft; all of them are long retired and none are headed to Cooperstown. If the Expos had taken Jeter instead of Mississippi State lefty B.J. Wallace—who never made the majors—would there still be a major league franchise in Montreal? If Jeter hadn't joined the Yankees' organization at a time when baseball people such as Gene Michael, rather than suspended owner George Steinbrenner, were in charge, would he have ended up like Fred McGriff or Jay Buhner or Doug Drabek—traded in a flash of Von Steingrabber impetuousness? If the '94 strike hadn't happened and the Yankees, the best team in the AL during that shortened season, had won the World Series without Jeter, would their '90s dynasty have been so strongly connected with his arrival? If the spring of '96 hadn't fallen just so—with Tony Fernandez breaking his elbow and Steinbrenner, unimpressed with Jeter, not being talked out of trading Mariano Rivera for shortstop Felix Fermin—would Jeter's career arc have been irretrievably altered?

The things that we see in Jeter are only in part things that are in Jeter. Todd Helton is retiring after this season—he is a player whose talent, on-field accomplishments and regard within the game are in line with Jeter's. Helton, though, spent his career in Colorado, playing for an expansion team, making just one World Series (and not winning it). Travel southeast from Yankee Stadium, and you find David Wright, a player with Hall of Fame talent doomed to spend his peak seasons with an ownership group unable to put a good team around him. The difference between Jeter and Helton or Wright seems large, but much of the gap is circumstance and fate.

If this is the end for Jeter, celebrate him without reserve. He's one of the greatest players in history, the anchor of a dynasty, an essential part of the game's story. Remember, though, that what separates the immortals from the perennial All-Stars isn't necessarily character or desire or any of the ineffable qualities we rush to grant successful athletes. Sometimes it's about who drafted you, when you came up, who didn't trade you and whether you worked for people who put you in position to succeed. Derek Jeter was great, and Derek Jeter was lucky. Acknowledging both doesn't diminish him one bit.

Derek Jeter's talent is undeniable—he's one of the greatest shortstops ever. But the things we see in him are only in part things that are in him.

Where does Jeter rank among the alltime greats?

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PHOTOERICK W. RASCO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDILLUSTRATION