Now batting for the Yankees, number 2, Derek Jeter, number 2. I can’t hear the late Bob Sheppard’s intro for The Captain without getting goose bumps. It really saddens me that I will never hear it again.
I look back at Major League Baseball, and I think Jeter is the first legend of the game that I’ve have the pleasure of watching for the entirety of his career. I watched Ken Griffey Jr closely, but I was only 7 years old when Junior broke in. I can’t place McGwire, Bonds and Clemens in the “Legend” category because of their PED scandals. Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout may someday be in that category. But, the odds of staying healthy enough and keeping production high enough throughout the course of a 20 year career is a bet that I wouldn’t be willing to take.
What does it take to be a 20-year pro? Health is the obvious answer. But we have seen healthy players before fall off around age 34. Jeter didn’t have too much of a drop off. The Captain batted .334 during his age 35 season, and .316 during his age 38 season. He was the model of consistency. His average big league season compared to his postseason numbers are eerily similar. If you take average 162 games season, his numbers look like this: .310 batting average, .377 on base percentage, 15 homers, 77 RBI and 21 steals. Compare that to his playoff numbers: .308 average, .374 on base percentage, 20 long balls, 61 RBI and 18 steals. It’s freaky how consistent Jeter was.
How was he able to stay so consistent? When I look at Derek Jeter, I don’t see a man with eye-popping ability. He doesn’t have great power or speed. His range up the middle was decent, but never great. His bat speed was nothing more than average. He didn’t have overwhelming athleticism or a great arm.
What is the one thing a batter can control? The answer, his approach at the plate. That’s why Jeter was so consistent in putting up good numbers. He never gave an at-bat away. He knew pitcher’s tendencies as well as anyone in the game. He knew when he needed to take a pitch or two. He knew when it was time to jump on a first pitch fastball. He was the ultimate team player. How many superstars in today’s game are willing to hit a grounder to the right side with a runner on 2nd with no outs? Today’s player is in love with the long ball and their own stats. Jeter knew his strengths and weaknesses. Jeter played his game and let the stats come to him.
I hope I can see another player like Jeter in my lifetime. I remember talking to my grandpa when I was younger. He would tell me about Stan The Man, Willie Mays, Teddy Ball Game etc. I just don’t know if that type of player is in baseball’s DNA these days. We all thought Pujols would be a lifetime Redbird, but he took the money. Can you blame him? Everyone is going to take the money when it’s that much better than the other offer on the table.
Why am I writing about Derek Jeter? The answer is simple. I love the game of baseball. And Derek Jeter was the face of the game I love for the majority of his playing career. During my lifetime, baseball has had a dark shadow cast upon it from PED scandals, the strike in 1994, and Pete Rose. How many players in the last 20 years have done everything they can to make baseball a better game? Cal Ripken Jr and Tony Gwynn might be the only ones that stand out to me. Derek Jeter was baseball’s knight in shining armor. He was the star that shined the brightest on the darkest night of the sport’s existence. And he did it in the largest media market in the league. It’s one thing to never do anything wrong. It’s a lot more impressive to do everything perfectly.
Thank you Mr. Jeter for everything you’ve done for the game I love. I look forward to telling my grandkids about you. We’ll see you in Cooperstown in five years.