He is both the last famous baseball player and one of the first athletes to navigate our modern landscape, where our stars are initially revered by the public before tiring of them and moving on to Next.
For a long time, Derek Jeter was as close as you could get to The Biggest Thing, even as Ken Griffey Jr. or Mark McGwire, A-Rod or Bonds or Ichiro exceeded him in both baseball exploits and the currency of the moment. Yet in a sport where individual exploits are little guarantee of team prosperity, Jeter found himself at the intersection of his own, significant accomplishments and an at-times unbeatable squad that happened to represent America’s most storied franchise.
Jeter will be inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame on Wednesday, a fitting denouement for a player who almost always exemplified fame, who enjoyed one of the greatest symbiotic relationships in sports history.
For there’s no way the Yankees win four World Series titles in five years, and five over Jeter’s 20-year career, without No. 2.
And there’s no way No. 2 is the Derek Jeter we all know without the Yankees.
Over the course of his 20 years as a Yankee, that embarrassment of riches produced a backlash of sorts.
Weird, isn’t it? While Jeter – the sixth overall pick in the 1992 draft – was never an underdog, his arrival was hardly foretold by magazine covers or ad blitzes. Yet, he was starting at shortstop for the Yankees by 21, at a time the Bronx Bombers had gone two decades without a championship, a whole generation not conditioned to revile them. A few months later, he was a World Series champion, soon enough their cold-blooded captain.
That first Yankees championship felt undeniably good for baseball. It’s easy to forget that 1996 was the first “normal” season of baseball since 1993, what with the 1994-95 campaigns truncated by work stoppages, the ’94 World Series wiped off the map altogether. The world got to know Jeter and Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams. Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, legends of the ‘80s, were champions again, after what seemed like a lost decade. Wade Boggs rode a damn horse.
Do you find Yankee fans insufferable? Certainly, a dose of success can make many of them so. But for a moment in time, it was a refreshing jolt to feel the energy when New York is baseball’s capital. Jeter was the rookie among a collection of old heads, projected either for Cooperstown or as second fiddle in his own town, what with the flashy Rey Ordonez manning shortstop in Queens.
That debate would fade quickly, as the Yankees could not stop winning. They’d capture three of the next four World Series, 11 division titles in 12 years, the hearts and minds and pocketbooks of ESPN and Fox executives who grew addicted to placing them in prime time, the last national bastion of a sport that’d go hyper-regional in coming decades.
It got tiresome, but as with Jeter, we didn’t really know what we had with those Yankees. Their three consecutive World Series titles were remarkable in real time but wildly anomalous in hindsight.
No World Series champion has repeated since the 2000 Yankees three-peated. And after a quarter-century of the three-division, wild-card playoff format, we only now know how remarkably difficult it is to navigate.
The great Braves teams of the ‘90s and early 2000s are often mocked for winning just one World Series title despite 14 consecutiv. Well, they’re going to have plenty of company in history. Look at these current Dodgers – on their way to a ninth consecutive playoff berth, but like the Braves, just one championship, for now, to show for it.
Turns out winning 11 playoff games is incredibly hard and that those Braves are the rule, the Yankees the exception.
Yet all that winning seemed to trigger a concept we’ll call Jeter Fatigue. It became something of a feedback loop – Jeter would do remarkable things on the baseball field, they’d be wildly celebrated because He Is Derek Jeter, and then the blowback might begin.
Remember his dive into the stands to catch a pop fly in extra innings, emerging bloodied and victorious? It’s actually one of Derek Jeter’s “greatest myths,” according to a fellow at Bleacher Report.
How about The Flip – that remarkable show of baseball instinct that saved the Yankees in an ALDS elimination game, preserving their run at a fourth consecutive World Series title that’d ultimately fall one win short? Why, it may not have been necessary, and there’s a five-minute YouTube video and a 62-comment Reddit thread to kick that all around.
We’re going to go out on a limb and say if it’s Miguel Tejada or Jimmy Rollins or any of Jeter’s 2001 contemporaries who made that play, it’s not subjected to frame-by-frame analysis decades later. And that speaks to the multiple media eras Jeter’s career spanned, resulting in an unprecedented level of scrutiny.
Jeter debuted when the print media world was still going great guns in the ‘90s. His Yankees reached their zenith as digital media’s reach exploded. His career plateaued as blogs and message boards democratized information and declined as social media reared its head.
That served to make a thirtysomething shortstop who always enjoyed a little too much hype an easy target. “Past a diving Jeter” started as a joke and became a meme, fodder for a world where #content was king. A corner of baseball fanalytics will always wonder why Jeter didn’t move off shortstop when Alex Rodriguez came to town, though in hindsight, Jeter likely saved A-Rod from the perils of his own decline, safe to enjoy PED-fueled 50-homer seasons as a corner infielder.
While Jeter enjoyed a yearlong sendoff in 2014 that appropriately framed his impact on the game, the hype and the blowback and the blowback to the blowback that ultimately surrounded him seemed to call into question the bona fides of Jeter, the ballplayer.
Let’s not enable the counter-narrative to The Narrative cloud a simple fact: Jeter was a phenomenal ballplayer.
Sure, nobody cares about hitting anymore, but let’s not forget that Jeter’s 3,465 hits rank sixth all-time, most by a shortstop. While we remember his final years as a grind, thanks to a shattered ankle in the 2012 playoffs, we tend to forget he banged out 216 hits as a 38-year-old that season.
WAR? Jeter ranks fifth among Yankees, trailing only his single-digit brethren: Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, DiMaggio.
A neat thing about the Yankees’ perennial playoff runs is the massive postseason sample size it created for the team’s biggest stars. And while Jeter’s October legend seemed forged in headline-grabbing snippets – Jeffrey Maier, The Flip, Mr. November – his season’s worth of playoff baseball is MVP worthy. In 158 playoff games, Jeter batted .308, reached base at a .374 clip, and his OPS of .838 outshined his career mark of .817. It is not a coincidence the Yankees won 22 of the 33 postseason series he played.
Even Jeter’s Achilles – his defense in the latter part of his career – doesn’t seem so egregious in hindsight. Advanced metrics surfaced in the early 2000s and were rarely kind to Jeter, indicating he bottomed out in 2007, when he was minus-24 in defensive runs saved and -18 in UZR/150.
Come 2009, though, he was on the positive ledger in DRS and 7.8 in UZR/150, which is either a mildly damning indictment of defensive metrics, a tribute to the Yankees’ defensive positioning, a nod to Jeter’s ability to improve, or some combo of the three.
The Yankees won the World Series that year and haven’t been back since. Jeter bowed out of Yankee Stadium in 2014 on a walk-off hit – does he script these things? – and it’s not unfair to say baseball has yet to replace him.
The neverending search for a Face of The Game – Harper or Trout? Judge or Mookie? Tatis or Ohtani? – continues as the game aims to solve its modern conundrum: The more exciting the player, it seems, the harder it gets to engage the general public.
Jeter remains the only major league player to host Saturday Night Live, and while that might be an antiquated metric of social currency, baseball’s desire to connect on a wider level remains a massive challenge that no number of alternate uniforms, novelty games and charismatic stars has been able to meet.
He became wildly popular even as he remained anodyne in his sound bites, his fame amplified by his Manhattan bachelorhood even as he navigated it with relative aplomb. It was a different landscape, one that changed under his feet, and by career’s end, looked completely different than the world he entered.
The journey concludes at the Hall of Fame, an ideal locale for a player who epitomized fame – while also accomplishing plenty between the white lines.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Derek Jeter: A Hall of Famer in both name and game
Source: Yahoo Sports