A Case for the Captain
Issue   |   Tue, 10/16/2012 - 23:56

I’m not the first Red Sox fan who has all positive things to say about Derek Jeter, nor (I hope) will I be the last. This week, I’m taking the ubiquitous respect for the Yankee captain a step further. Baseball fans will already know why I’m taking up this subject now: The Bronx Bombers lost their shortstop for the remainder of the playoffs with a fractured ankle and now find themselves trailing the Tigers 3-0, a deficit from which only one team in history (that's right!) has come back.

Perfect time to talk about how terrible and overrated the Yankees are, right? Not exactly. After years of watching Jeter and almost taking his presence on the field for granted, I got to thinking: is he the greatest player of all time?

Before I start, I want to make an announcement to Yankee fans: the fact that I thought to write this now is not my attempt at a backhanded, “Hehe, you guys are screwed!” It’s the product of a legitimate and very strong feeling I experienced when I watched the captain limp off the field in Game 1 (I had just woken up, having fallen asleep in disgust when Raul Ibanez tied the game in the ninth). Got that? Good.

At first glance, the case for Jeter as the best player in history isn’t statistically overwhelming, besides perhaps his 3304 hits, which are good for 11th on the all-time list.

The significance of that number changes, however, when you consider that it is second all-time among shortstops behind Honus Wagner. Like the catcher’s spot, shortstop is considered one of the toughest positions on the field to play, one at which defense usually comes first and any offensive production is merely a bonus.

Did I mention that playing shortstop, especially over the course a 162-game season, takes a tremendous toll on the body?

Anyone who’s ever been cleaned out at second base on a double play can tell you that. So, the fact that Jeter’s hit total is second among shortstops is a big deal. Along the same lines, Jeter is also first all-time among full-time shortstops in runs scored (Alex Rodriguez has a few more, but many of those came while he played third).

Now, the numbers start to become more impressive. Lifetime average? .313 over 18 years, also astounding for a shortstop. He’s hit over .300 12 times, and, in eight of those years, he’s amassed at least 200 hits (for comparison, Rodriguez has hit over .300 nine times and has collected 200 hits three times in about the same number of seasons. All-time hit leader Pete Rose pulled off 10 .300 seasons and nine 200 hit seasons — in 24 years, six more than Jeter has played so far. Home run king Hank Aaron had more .300 seasons but only three 200-hit seasons).

Gold gloves? Five, and they all came after 2003, so he likely would have won at least two more — 2001 and 2002 — had they not instead gone to the flashier Rodriguez. He’s the 1996 Rookie of the Year and a 13-time All-Star. And his numbers this year, at age 38: .316 with 216 hits.

Oh yeah, and he’s a five-time World Series champion. Anyone who has ever compared LeBron to M.J. or Kobe knows that championships simply make a difference in judging a player’s legacy. No team in the modern era has done what the Yankees did between 1996 and 2000 (they were three outs away from doing it again in 2001), and Jeter has been consistently at the center of the glory. His lifetime postseason average is .308, and, three times, he’s hit over .350 in a World Series in addition to being the 2000 Series MVP.

Talk about clutch. Remember that incredible flip in the 2001 ALDS to nab Jeremy Giambi at the plate and turn the series around? To this day, I don’t think anyone in the world knows what he was doing on that play, but it was an instant classic and remains one of the most-replayed sports moments of the last 15 years. To name a regular-season equivalent, the captain bloodied himself making a diving catch in the stands in the 12th inning of a 2004 Red Sox-Yankees game, a grab that remained etched in the collective consciousness as much because of who made it as because of the play itself. He has an instinct for the game that few, if any, have ever demonstrated. And, where pressure wears on some players, pressure brings out the best in Jeter.

Speaking of intangibles: some hitters are feared, but Jeter is revered. You simply don’t throw him an outside fastball because, if you do, you might as well just give him (at least) first base. Even if you do manage to jam him, he’ll display his almost superhuman bat control and serve the ball into right field. And, when the ball’s hit to him at short, no matter how tought the play looks, forget about it.

Jeter has performed time and time again in the regular season and the postseason alike — and he’s done it all with one team. That’s important to me. In this day an age, few players ever have an opportunity to be the face of a franchise. Yet, on a team perennially laden with high-payroll superstars and in an organization with some of the richest history on the planet, Jeter has been just that for a long time. As long as I’ve been watching the game, I can say without doubt: Derek Jeter is the Yankees. And, I don’t know, maybe he personifies baseball itself. I’ve come to hate the phrase “class act,” but there is no better way to describe Captain Clutch.

Given the combination of Jeter’s consistent prowess on both offense and defense, his knack for clutch and postseason excellence and his larger-than-life status, I am compelled to say that, if it’s possible to name the greatest player of all time, I think you will find him wearing #2 for the Yankees.

Could you point to other guys with better numbers in certain categories? Maybe, though very few. But can you point to a baseball player — or, for that matter, any athlete — that embodies winning (and winning with dignity) the way Jeter has for so long? I doubt it.

As I finish writing this, I realize that I almost forgot the best part of this whole thing. Yankees down 3-0, Tigers one win away from closing this thing out and (hopefully) capturing a title. That’s what it’s all about.