I can sit here and do a top 10 moments of Jeter’s career. I can sit here and list the stats or tell you why he’s a first ballot Hall of Famer.
But that just isn’t my style.
No, instead, I want to take this time to tell you what Derek Jeter means to me. After all, that’s what Jeter and his gang of pinstriped All-Stars were.
They weren’t about themselves. The were about bringing the fire back to Yankees baseball.
From his first call-up to the day he retired, Jeter was rarely the best player on the field. There were many seasons he wasn’t even the best player on his team over his 20-year career. Jeter was young, handsome and atop a very potent lineup. It was easy to make him the face of what these new Yankees represented.
He was also super clutch.
The 1980s and early-90s Yankees were a disaster. You wanted them to win so badly because Don Mattingly was arguably the classiest Yankee to ever don the pinstripes (see what I did there?). But George Steinbrenner brought in big names, with bigger personalities, and little in talent on the mound. Though it culminated in some nice 90-plus win seasons, it never got them to the playoffs.
But that’s who the Yankees always were. Sure, Murderer’s Row was one of the greatest eras of Yankees baseball, but Babe Ruth was no saint. He constantly fought with Miller Huggins and saw himself suspended by his own team on a few occasions. The 60s? Mickey Mantle was arguably the greatest player to ever play the game (at least could have been) but his off-field antics are very well-documented. The Bronx Zoo? Get out of here. If those teams got along, there were more championships to be had.
That’s what Jeter means to Yankees fans. Again, it wasn’t just Jeter, but a culture Jeter represented. Who ever said, “Man, that Bernie Williams is a loud-mouthed blowhard”? When did you hear, “I just don’t respect Mariano Rivera as a person because he handles himself so poorly”?
The thing about the 1996 to 2001 New York Yankees is that individually, most of them were not standalone Hall of Fame-caliber players. I’m old enough to remember the Yankees fanbase wondering why they traded a 27-year-old ever-improving All-Star in Roberto Kelly for a 30-year-old Paul O’Neill who never even hit .300. I remember fans wondering how they could go out and get Tino Martinez, who was a key factor in ending Donnie Baseball’s career without a playoff series win.
But it all worked. Sure, O’Neill was a bit fiery and people couldn’t stand him for that, but you rarely heard about those actions outside of the stadium. That was the case with much of that dynasty. They came to work, they did their job, and they did it better than everyone else. The Jeter Way.
People didn’t hate those Yankees because they were a circus. People hated those Yankees because it became the thing to do. The Boston Red Sox and Yankees became engaged in annual memorable series, so America sided with Red Sox Nation and the hatred manifested. The Boss went out and broke the bank with more money in his wallet than 25 other teams, and people hated it. They said the Yankees played the game the wrong way by buying championships.
But you rarely heard that about the players. You didn’t hear that they played the game the wrong way. Because they didn’t.
And that was what Jeter was. He became the ambassador of a Yankees run that brought back Yankees pride. That arrogant, no-one-can-beat-us-and-we-are-going-to-tell-you-about-it, Yankees pride.
If people hated Jeter and his crew for anything, it was giving us loud-mouth fans hope yet again.
Many will tell you Jeter is overrated as a player. I won’t say I disagree with that. When people name the greatest Yankees of all-time, Jeter’s name enters the conversation because of who he was as a man, not so much the level of talent. Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Ford. That’s some pretty hefty company.
Jeter was an average defensive shortstop for much of his career, but will be remembered as one of the greatest shortstops to ever play the game. Is that fair? Maybe not, but he didn’t ask people to think that way.