By Jason Keidel
» More Columns
With his superlative and suspicious season (according to Skip Bayless), Derek Jeter is climbing the rungs of history. His latest feat, passing Willie Mays on the hit list, has placed him closer to the Mt. Rushmore of Yankees, if not immortals.
And it seems each show on WFAN doubles as a symposium on Jeter’s place in Yankees history, if not immortals.
This is where the debate becomes dubious. For all his splendor, clutch hits, catches and throws, Jeter has the serendipity of doing it as a Yankee and the misfortune of doing it as a Yankee. Had Jeter done this for just about any other team he’d be the best player in franchise history. But as a Yankee, I’m sorry to say he’s not among the top five pinstriped deities.
I was at the game in 2004, when he made the iconic headfirst lunge into the stands behind third base chasing that popup. In fact, I was about 10 or so rows away, close enough to wipe the blood from his face.
I know about the toss in Oakland three years earlier. I know about the first November home run. I know about the bachelor nonpareil who somehow prowled the streets of New York City, slept with hundreds (if not thousands) of woman and navigated the media with cat’s quiet cadence.
He speaks in scripted platitudes, giving the newspapers nothing, no chalkboard fodder for the enemy. And he makes my job exponentially more boring by being so awesome, or bland, depending on how you want your stars.
Frankly, I want my heroes flawed. Not in the A-Rod, Bonds and Clemens vein, but someone imbued with his share of original sin. I don’t want someone who smiles at second base every time his pitcher surrenders a double, but instead someone who swears or swings at the opponent on occasion. Someone a little ornery, like Reggie or Billy Martin or Lou Piniella. Heck, even Darryl dove into the Orioles’ dugout for some cage fighting.
But none of that makes Jeter less of a ballplayer. Nor does it make him a better ballplayer. And the contours of his career are often opaque because we combine character with accomplishment.
Jeter has his 3,000 hits, a .300 average, a gold glove or two, five rings and a partridge in a pear tree. But he’s NOT BABE RUTH. He’s NOT LOU GEHRIG. He’s NOT JOE DIMAGGIO. He’s NOT MICKEY MANTLE.
What do those men have in common, sans Jeter? They dominated their sport. Jeter never even won an MVP.
No doubt the mythology was far more facile then, sans the gaggle of social networks and the gaggle of talk radio and television. Mantle’s exploits are now famous and infamous, but in 1958 his trysts and turns with his gumar weren’t splashed across Page Six.
So Jeter had an unprecedented renaissance this year. Combine his age, wage and stats, and you have a startling, titanic and historic season, now thrusting No. 2 up to No. 1 to some fans.
Robin Ventura started the fire and now it has spread across the five boroughs and beyond: this idea that Jeter is the greatest Yankee of all time. He’s not even the best player in his own infield. Alex Rodriguez will wind up with more doubles, homers, RBIs and Gold Gloves.
“Who’s got more rings?”
That’s always been a specious argument, because anyone who makes it knows that one player can’t make a baseball club, the way Jordan made the Bulls. Never happens. Jeter can (and does) help a club, but he can’t carry it.
Since Jeter’s so smooth it’s impossible to separate the man from the deification, and we have mythologized Jeter beyond repair. Ruth was hitting more homers than entire teams. And the only reason Gehrig isn’t the greatest Yankee ever is because he played with Ruth. DiMaggio was an impeccable hitter who could bat .350 and strike out 10 times ALL YEAR. Mantle won the Triple Crown in 1956, while leading BOTH leagues in all three categories. Jeter never owned the sport. Just our hearts.
The best, most important Yankee since Ruth is indeed still playing. He just happens to pitch. Yes, Mariano Rivera is the No. 2 all-time Yankee.
And stop putting us pundits, writers, reporters, columnists and commentators in the eternally awkward position of picking at Jeter. It should be enough that he’s an immortal, his bronze bust assured five years to the second after he retires, both in the Bronx and Cooperstown, his number retired from Monument to Yellowstone Park.
If you want those of us who eulogized Jeter last year to apologize, you got it. I’m sorry. But to bend the other way and embalm the man in faerie dust is equally misguided. He’s human. I shook the man’s hand. And unlike Mr. Bayless, I never questioned the ingredients in Jeter’s newfound fountain of youth. He’s just that great. But just not the greatest.
Where do you think Jeter ranks on the list of all-time Yankees? Let us know in the comments section below…