Right From The Beginning

Ok it’s over. Finally and mercifully. The media coverage was almost nauseating. Derek Jeter has unlaced his spikes, and in five years he can go visit them in Cooperstown. He belongs. The stats say it. His play on and off the field confirms it as much as the five World Series rings he owns.

Don’t get me wrong. Jeter was never the best shortstop in the game from a physical skills standpoint. Possibly not even the best in his league. If that sounds overly harsh, consider a few facts. He came up in the Era of The Shortstop. Nomar Garciaparra was a great hitter and became a batting champ. Miguel Tejada, drugs aside, won an MVP. Cal Ripken played every day for a looooong time and Barry Larkin made the Hall of Fame. Ripken had two 200 hit seasons. Jeter had eight. Larkin won the MVP with a .319-15-66 line, an OBP of .394 and SLG of .492. Jeter missed the MVP with a .349-24-102, an OBP of .438 and SLG of .552. He wuz robbed! Never heard a peep out of him. No one picked it at short like Omar Vizquel. And then there was A-Rod, and though I am not a fan of his, he was simply the best two-way shortstop of all time. And I saw Ernie Banks, the only one even close.

No, Jeter’s value goes far beyond the stats. Anybody who has ever played the game in high school, college, sandlot or anywhere, really, understands the value of a guy who rises to the occasion and delivers in the clutch a la Yogi Berra. Ask Don Newcombe. Anybody who has ever played the game understands the value of a guy who was always front and center for the big moment, guys like Yaz in 1967, George Brett in 1980, Carlos Beltran in the playoffs in 2004 or Mariano Rivera most every year.

Anybody who has ever played the game understands the value of a guy who wins. Some maintain that wins don’t measure a pitcher’s performance, but winning is the ONLY thing in a team sport. And who has won more than Jeter? Nobody in the last half century.

Anybody who has ever played the game understands how tempting it must be to use performance enhancing drugs to make an average major leaguer a star, or a star a superstar.

Anybody who has ever played the game understands the fine line of the success/failure ratio and how manipulating one’s own body could enable you to cash in on the instant fame, the bloated statistics, and the incredible financial rewards, all while satisfying your own ego. But you know what? That’s cheating. You can’t look the other way. No one is accusing Jeter of cheating, which is one reason why he has every ballplayer’s respect.

There wasn’t much question about his hitting. He hit. The argument has always been that Jeter wasn’t a good shortstop. That’s a lot of malarkey. He was good enough to win five Golden Gloves. True, his range wasn’t like A-Rod’s, but he didn’t cheat with drugs either. Yes, his range deteriorated with age, but then again virtually no one played short regularly at his age, a testament to his often overlooked athleticism. And they insisted that he didn’t go to his left as well as most shortstops, let alone Vizquel, as if anyone else ever did do it as well as Omar. (I saw Aparicio, too!. Other than little Luis and Ozzie on turf, nobody else).

Anybody who has ever played the game understands the value of a player who never lets up, is always prepared and is always focused on winning, not on themselves like so many hairy knuckled sluggers such as Sosa, Bonds, McGuire. How many times did Jeter hit the ball the other way with runners on, how many times did you see him give up an opportunity for a hit and sacrifice? 16 times one season. How many times did you see him work a walk? How many times did he steal 30 or more bases (FYI, 4x) How many times did you see him get 200 hits in a season (FYI eight, more than any other SS in baseball history).

Like Jeter himself said. “I’m not the most gifted player in the game, but nobody works harder.” He was a pro’s pro.

Do you want to know what really made Jeter stand out so much? He never stopped coming at you and he won. He beat you. With his bat, glove, arm and legs he made his teammates better. He dived into the stands. I was there in 2004 and I saw it. He backflipped a ball to nail Jeremy Giambi at the plate from the first base foul line. (What was he doing there?) Day in day out, for twenty years, he beat you. Remember baseball fans, the Yankees were dreadful pre-Jeter. Tony Fernandez was a fine shortstop but an old man in 1996, and if he didn’t get hurt, the Yankees dynasty 1996 through 2000 didn’t happen. Jeter made it happen.

I recall the day Jeter started his first full season (1996). I had watched him in his cup of coffee the previous season and saw him play in Spring Training in Florida. The Mets had brought up a rookie shortstop also that year by the name of Rey Ordonez, a defensive whiz with a great arm, and Opening Day that year Rey-Rey made a play in short left field that still shows up on highlight reels, throwing out a runner at the plate from his knees in the outfield. I still marvel at it. Next day a former colleague who shall remain nameless, observed that nothing was going to stop Ordonez from being a multi-time all star who would lead the Mets to being a perennial contender and to World Series glory. Well, we all know that his bat stopped him from that. But while I listened to the superlatives that Ordonez received (and deserved) for his play, I made a casual comment, that though the Mets had a great gloveman (who knew how he was going to hit?), I looked like a true prognosticator when I said, “With all due respect, I am telling you that we have just entered the Derek Jeter era”.

In fact some say, if Jeter wasn’t a Yankee, he would have been MVP. That prejudice won’t keep him out of the Hall Of Fame. So some twenty seasons later, it’s safe to say that Yankee fan or Yankee hater, Derek Jeter didn’t let the fans down. Or his teammates. Or his family. Or himself. Nice to be right once in a while.

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