Friday, June 24, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #16: Derek Jeter

In 1996 Derek Jeter was a unanimous American League Rookie of the Year winner, and was an important part of the Yankees winning the World Series for the first time since 1978, ending the team's longest drought since winning its first championship in 1923. By the end of 2000, Jeter had played little more than a quarter of his career, but had already won four World Series rings and played in more nationally televised games than just about any player in history. He was the face of the Yankees, which in many ways made him the face of baseball, and he was still only 26 years old. Unsurprisingly, being the most beloved player on the Yankees made Jeter a divisive figure. In the three decades I've been a fan, no player has received as much adulation, and few have received as much scorn.

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This countdown is a way for me to look back at the three decades I've spent as a baseball fan. My introduction to the project, with an explanation of sorts, and links to every entry can be found here.

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The first famous play of Jeter's career was the home run he hit in Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series against Baltimore. With the Yankees behind by a run in the 8th inning, Jeter hit a long fly ball that was going to fall just short of the wall and be caught for the second out of the inning, at least until a 12-year-old boy reached over the wall to try to catch himself a souvenir and had the ball bounce off his mitt into the crowd; the play was incorrectly ruled a home run, tying the game, which New York went on to win in extra innings, potentially changing the outcome of the entire series. If the Yankees lose that series, they probably still go on to win the World Series in other years, but maybe George Steinbrenner blows the whole thing up and the Yankees continue to flounder. Instead, Jeter's legend began. Damn 12-year-olds...

Derek Jeter retired with a .310/.377/.440 batting line, with 260 home runs and 358 stolen bases, and with 3465 career hits, which is by far the highest total by any player since I became a baseball fan in 1986. Jeter also played in 158 postseason games, a record I don't believe will ever be broken. His career postseason batting line was .308/.374/.465, which means he played a full extra season's worth of games in the postseason, and put up excellent offensive numbers in that "season." He also made some famous defensive plays, none more famous than "the flip":



The Yankees were down two games to one in that best-of-five series, one loss from being eliminated, and were clinging to a one-run lead when that play happened. If Jeter doesn't bust his ass across the diamond to snare that errant throw, or if he was unable to make the nifty toss to the catcher in time, the Yankees may have lost that game. Instead, Jeter's legend grew. Damn slow, not-sliding Jeremy Giambi...

While Jeter did make a number of excellent defensive plays in his career, his trademark, go deep into the hole to his right and throw to first base while jumping in the air play (as pictured at the top) looked really cool, and he won a number of Gold Gloves, but advanced metrics hated his defense, and rate him as one of the worst defensive shortstops in history. That particular divergence, between what many fans' eyes told them, and what the metrics found, is what really exacerbated the difference of opinions on Jeter.

A couple weeks after the flip, Jeter had the moment I think of first when remembering his career. Ironically, much of my memory of that moment has to do with what I don't remember, because that moment led to the only drunken blackout of my life. It was Halloween of 2001, my senior year of college, and I was out in costume (Han Solo) with friends at an Iowa City drinking spot. Because of the attacks on September 11, the postseason had gotten off to a late start, and so for the first time there was still baseball as Linus went to wait in the pumpkin patch.

It was Game 4, and the Diamondbacks were ahead two games to one. When Arizona took a 3-1 lead into the ninth inning, I started to let myself consider the joyous possibility that my college years wouldn't be filled entirely with the Yankees winning the World Series every year. They blew the lead, and during the bottom of the tenth, the clock struck midnight in New York, turning the calendar from October to a month Major League Baseball had never experienced before. Jeter hit a home run into the short porch of Yankee Stadium's Little League right field, "Mr. November" flashed on the scoreboard as Jeter rounded the bases, I chugged my beer, then my girlfriend's beer, then my roommate's beer. I don't know what all I did after that, because the next thing I knew it was the next morning, and I was waking up still dressed as captain of the Millennium Falcon.

Good times.

Some would say Jeter compiled great career totals by staying healthy, but was never a truly great hitter, that he was a terrible defender and doesn't belong anywhere on this list. Others would say he was a Gold Glove shortstop with great offensive numbers for his position, that he was the leader of the greatest team of the last thirty years, and ought to be in the top five. A few would even say that because he was never connected to performance enhancing drugs, he should be #1. As with many heated sports arguments, I find myself somewhere near the middle. Jeter wasn't the baseball god his biggest supporters would have you believe, but while I often wished I could drink enough to black out his entire career, I'm forced to acknowledge that he was great. He will waltz into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, and deservedly so.

2 comments:

  1. I liked this story of your wild youth, Jason. Granddad would have loved to have talked baseball with you and vice versa.

    Have to ask....who is the #32 Indian pitcher who threw to Jeter's 1st time at bat/homerun in the clip? I tried to see and though it doesn't look like Albie I thought the name on the shirt ended with a "Z", and it made me wonder.

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    1. That would be Dennis Martinez, who had been the Indians' best pitcher the season before, but was a few weeks shy of his 42nd birthday, making him old by baseball standards.

      Albie Lopez did face Jeter 26 times during his career, and had good success against him, allowing only 6 hits, while striking him out 10 times an never walking him. Only four other pitchers who faced Jeter 25+ times held him to a lower on-base percentage than Lopez did. Pretty good!

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