“He might go down, when it’s all over, as the All-Time Yankee.”
That’s quite an endorsement, to be sure. It might also be a surprise to know whom that quote is referring to.
While reflecting on the great Yankee Pantheon, you might instantly think of such mythic figures as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, or Mickey Mantle as the most likely suspects, but you would be wrong on all counts, however.
Mariano Rivera? Robinson Cano? Alex Rodriguez? (OK, that was uncalled for, but a good belly laugh each day is very healthy!)
There is only one remaining possibility, of course.
That would be Derek Sanderson Jeter, AKA “The Captain”, “Captain Clutch”, or “Mr. November”.
It was baseball lifer Don Zimmer who made that reference to Jeter in September of 2009. And you know what? He was absolutely right.
Even the most casual fan who despises the Yankees and their pedigree must concede at least a begrudging respect and acknowledgement of Jeter’s career resume, and what his legacy will mean to the Yankees franchise for decades to come.
But, still, the Greatest Yankee ever?
First, consider the numbers. While Jeter has nothing close to those gaudy power stats of the primary Yankee legends that purists so highly regard, there are still plenty of his numbers that merit a good, hard look.
Jeter is the Yankees’ all-time leader in Games Played (2,585), At-Bats (10,551), Hits (3,304), and Stolen Bases (348). His 1,868 Runs Scored ranks 13th all-time, only 21 shy of passing Gehrig for second all-time on the Yankees’ career list.
Last season, at age 38, Jeter became the oldest player to lead Major League Baseball in hits (216). And, with a mere 132 hits in 2013, Jeter will conclude this season as Number Six on baseball’s Career Hit List. Whether he can become only the third player to reach 4000 career hits is really a matter of physical health and a bit of luck, as The Captain’s will and desire to play the game he loves appears undiminished in the least.
Yet, while any baseball addict can endlessly spew numbers to validate a player’s legacy, he also knows on a very basic level that a catalogue of iconic moments is just as critical for bestowing a mantle of all-time greatness on that player. Jeter is no exception to that truth.
Remember “The Flip” in Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS, or Jeter’s game-winning clout in Game 4 of the 2001 World Series as baseball crossed the November threshold for the first time? What about that now legendary leap into the stands July 1, 2004 to make a critical out in a classic tense contest with the Red Sox? Highlight reel stuff for many years to come.
Jeter’s finest hour, though, may well have been July 9, 2011. Wearied from the unrelenting attention surrounding his quest for 3000 hits, and suffering a power outage that hadn’t seen him homer at Yankee Stadium in almost a year, Jeter smacks a David Price curveball into the seats for his historic hit. And then, oh by the way, he proceeds to go 5 for 5, while driving in the winning run in the bottom of the eighth. Is it any wonder that after Jeter broke his ankle in Game 1 of the ALCS last October that there were so many empty seats at The Stadium the next day? The fans knew. Without their leader, the Yankees had no chance.
Derek Jeter’s strongest claim, though, to the honor of being hailed as the Greatest Yankee ever may simply be rooted in the man himself. Playing in an era of unmatched media scrutiny in the world’s greatest metropolis, Jeter has carried himself as the consummate professional, and has always understood the special obligations intertwined with his celebrity. His numbers and achievements are simply by-products of a man whose attitude is always that “team trumps everything”. Five World Series rings would seem to bear that out.
Yes, the 2013 season figures to be an uphill battle for an aging and beat-up Bronx Bombers squad. Fans’ attention will be rightly focused on Mariano Rivera as he concludes one of baseball’s most remarkable careers. With everything else going on, it might be easy to overlook the reliable Number 2 at his familiar post in the Yankee infield (once his ankle allows him regular play), but don’t.
Fathers, each time Jeter steps up to the plate this season, if your son is a baseball fan, and is not with you in front of the television, call him to come and watch a man who has used that patented “Jeterian swing” to lace a hit into right center as few others can. Teach your sons to cherish that image while they can. For when Jeter is gone, like Mariano Rivera, Yankees fans will never see the likes of him again.
Greatest Yankee ever? Count on it.