By Ernie Palladino
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It is over now. Derek Jeter has left the building.
From now until the end of what should be a long, productive career afterlife, only ceremonial occasions will bring the great shortstop back to the diamond at Yankee Stadium. Old Timers’ Day appearances, his inevitable uniform retirement, the honoring of his former teammates will mark the only reasons he has to leave his Tampa estate now and return to the baseball home where he became a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer.
Yes, that’s right. First ballot.
There has been some talk about that the last few days, specifically from one cable network blowhard who placed his accomplishments far south of immortal. Others have taken the contrasting viewpoint that, not only should Jeter take his place among baseball’s other immortals in Cooperstown as soon as his five-year waiting period runs out, but that he should be the Hall’s first unanimous selection.
The realistic view is that neither side is correct. Certainly, the talking head’s assessement of Jeter’s 20-year career slid so far past second that Jeter could have bobbled, kicked, and overthrew an outfield relay and still made the putout tag. For those who believe only the mentally imbalanced would leave the Jeter box unchecked on his first Hall of Fame ballot, they’re caught up in the man’s classically classy demeanor, part of which included a respect for officials that enabled him to avoid ejection in all 2,745 games he played. That’s not to mention the overall reverence he exhibited for the game itself.
But here are the facts. Jeter should be — and will be — a first-ballot job. He will not be unanimous simply because there are voters out there who believe absolutely no one deserves election the first time around. It is their only rationale. The reasoning might be stupid and shortsighted, but all writers who fit the voting qualifications have a right to fill out their ballots however they see fit. And some refuse to put in players on the first ballot.
One other rationale assures Jeter of a non-unanimous selection. One voter proclaimed months ago that he would never vote for anyone coming out of the steroids era. Not anyone, not anytime. Unfortunately for Jeter, his career encompassed the entire era. Unless that voter surrenders to the common sense that not everyone used PEDs, and that Jeter seems to come out of their squeakier clean than any of his contemporaries, he’ll have at least one or two voters passing him by.
He’ll just have to settle for first-ballot entry, unless otherwise knowledgeable writers all of a sudden start listening to television burnouts like our friend, the talking head. He went on the air spouting about Jeter’s lack of accomplishments, as if 3,463 hits and five championships didn’t say enough about the man.
Never an MVP, the gasbag said. True. Rarely tops among major league hitting categories? True. Bad final year? Absolutely.
Had help winning all those championships? Well, who in the first place said he did it all by himself? No one.
Thank goodness the talkie fell short of saying Jeter hasn’t had a Hall of Fame career. But he came awfully close. His point was that he is not the greatest Yankee ever.
For the few who doubt Jeter deserves a place in baseball’s Olympus on a statistical basis, don’t use the stats. Use the eyes. The catches, the smart plays, the timely hits, and the way his teammates reacted to him all combine to put him among the handful of dominant players of his era. He never had the power of Albert Pujols, but he wasn’t supposed to. Shortstops outside of the pre-Yankees Alex Rodriguez don’t generally hit with a lot of power. So Jeter did just fine with his 260 homers.
Positionally, he was the greatest shortstop of his era, and it was a long era. His and Hall-of-Famer Ozzie Smith’s careers overlapped Jeter’s first two years. But after that, there were no shortstops who had the package Jeter presented. Even Cal Ripken, another Hall resident who compiled an unbreakable Ironman streak, can’t be counted, as he played at third for five of his seven-year overlap with Jeter.
He wasn’t the best of all time. Not even top five, according to Baseball-Statistics.com. Its list goes Honus Wagner, Ernie Banks, Ripken, Joe Cronin, and Smith.
Smith, Omar Vizquel, Luis Aparacio, and Mark Belanger were all better fielders, though only Vizquel could be counted as Jeter’s true contemporary.
But Vizquel didn’t have Jeter’s bat. Nowhere close. In that, and in his instinctual fielding, Jeter was easily the most dominant shortstop of his era. And that’s plenty.
The clock starts Sunday when Jeter walks out of Fenway Park.
He will enter Cooperstown exactly five years from now, not unanimously, but certainly deservedly so.
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