By Sweeny Murti
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“We can put on the uniform, and we can play in the Stadium, but we’re not the New York Yankees unless Derek Jeter is playing shortstop.”—Mike Mussina, May 2003.
In the decade-plus since Mussina first gave me that quote, I have used it often and each time I think that it should be chiseled into granite and placed in Monument Park. It seems appropriate to share it again today, now that we know the end of the line is coming for Jeter, who announced Wednesday that the 2014 season will be his last.
Mussina was speaking to me that day about Jeter’s return from a shoulder injury suffered on Opening Day. He was coming back six weeks later, and Mussina basically said what we all know as the truth regarding the Yankees for nearly two decades now — that Jeter sets the tone.
Jeter often spoke about advice from his parents, that others may be more talented but don’t let them outwork you. What better example would you want the captain of the Yankees to set than to show up and make sure no one works harder.
Isn’t that what made The Dive in 2004 so special, as Alex Rodriguez watched from third base and Nomar Garciaparra from the visitor’s dugout? Bar room arguments were endless in the late 90s and early 2000s as to who was the better shortstop of that trio. Only one of them was making that play.
I asked Jeter many times about taking the reins of leadership in the clubhouse. He preferred to lead by example, by the way he prepared for games each day, made sure he was having fun, and others would follow. And if a teammate had to be pulled aside, for good reason or bad, he was always going to do it in private, making sure the message was one-on-one and not delivered through the media.
This is what people talk about when the talk about Jeter’s intangibles. Want some tangibles? Only two players in history have totaled at least 3,000 hits, 250 home runs, 300 stolen bases and 1,200 runs batted in. Their names are Willie Mays and Derek Jeter. Jeter has eight seasons of at least 200 hits and another 200 in the postseason.
Want to talk about winning? Never mind the five World Series rings. Get this—Jeter has played in 2,602 regular season games and has appeared in only one in which the Yankees were not in playoff contention (Sept. 26, 2008).
Many Yankees fans will feel sad because watching Jeter has been a part of their childhood and adulthood. But just as No. 2 smiled and cheered as Mariano Rivera cried on his way off the mound last year, we should realize this is not a sad day. It is a day to celebrate having seen one of the greatest players in baseball history.
And we have the chance to see him again in 2014.
Just remember this: all the stories you heard over the years about Ruth and Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle, Berra and Ford — you will be telling your own stories about Jeter and Rivera.
It won’t happen again for a very long time.
So appreciate what you’re seeing now and celebrate it.
Check out my 2010 column on a decade of Jeter memories on the Yankees beat.
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