“I have the greatest job in the world. Only one person can have it. You have shortstops on other teams — I’m not knocking other teams — but there’s only one shortstop on the Yankees.”—Derek Jeter quoted in Peter Richmond, “Pride of the Yankees,” GQ Magazine, September 1998
“There’s only one shortstop on the Yankees.” Derek Jeter’s belief that this was an honor helped keep him in pinstripes for 20 years. But his consequent realization that it was a responsibility, I would say, gave him the steely-eyed determination to push himself to every possible limit to get the most famous franchise in professional sports into the postseason, and, against every threat, external and internal, to win the World Series.
Jeter’s lifetime statistics and status as the key position player on five Yankee World Championship teams will make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But what has made him the team’s captain and endeared him to millions of fans—and what is barely grasped by the sabermetricians who carp about his defense—is that he’s a throwback—not just to the more storied names of the franchise, but to those who reinforced the cracks in baseball’s greatest dynasty. Read David Halberstam’s description of a relatively unheralded Yankee, the shortstop of the early ‘60s dynasty, Tony Kubek from October ’64. Then tell me if it doesn’t remind you of Jeter, too:
“The key to his play, his teammates thought, was that that he played with an inner toughness that he transmitted to other players on the team and seemed to carry him to a higher level in big games. He wanted to win, he expected to win, and he would not let anyone else loaf or slip beneath a standard of excellence.”
So the Yankees’ home opener against the Orioles yesterday—Jeter’s last—is, as far as the captain is concerned, all of a piece. Its importance didn’t lie in the fact that he notched another hit, but that the team won.
You can go anywhere on the Web and find the kind of picture that makes Jeter catnip to supermodels. But the dirty uniform in the photo accompanying this post (from his rookie season) reveals why there is going to be such a gaping hole at short for the Yankees next year.
Jeter isn’t a perfect player or person. Neither was Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Munson, or Jackson. But, for longer than any of them, he endured because he understood that “the greatest job in the world” was also the toughest in the world to hold—in the eye of a longtime owner famous for wondering what a player did for him two minutes ago, a steroid-ridden environment that propped up cheaters at the same position (Rodriguez, Tejada) who made his achievements appear smaller for awhile, and a 24/7 media monster ready to devour the same people it had just created.
In the end, Jeter has been the Yankees’ Odysseus: not the strongest member of the crew, nor even necessarily the bravest, but the leader with the toughest survival instincts—and, like the epic hero, after 20 years, finally ready to go home.