It’s our turn. The Derek Jeter Farewell Tour arrives at Fenway Tuesday night. I’m sure the “Derek Jeter You-Know-What” T-shirts will be coveted items.
I don’t have one. Don’t want one. I think they are stupid and embarrassing and unbecoming for a baseball constituency that likes to portray itself to the outside world as enlightened when it comes to appreciating athletic greatness. OK, I could understand the sentiment in a good-natured way as long as Nomah was a prime rival. But Nomah has retired and gone over to the Dark Side, a member, although he would never look at it that way, of the media he so despised. But that’s a story for another day.
Nomah is long gone from Boston, and baseball in general. But Derek Jeter, who beat his great Boston rival to the big leagues by a year, is still a valued member of a Yankees team that appears to have enough starting pitching to overcome its many deficiencies. To the surprise of many, Jeter announced in advance that 2014 will be his final season, thus guaranteeing the kind of slobbering ongoing attention from everyone in the baseball world he has long sought to avoid. But he knew what making that announcement would mean. So maybe there’s a more interesting human being behind the mask than we ever suspected, after all.
I will begin with my conclusion. If I had the choice of one major league baseball player who has put on a uniform during the past 30 years, my choice would be Derek Jeter. Yes, Derek Jeter, not the guy from Pittsburgh and San Francisco who hit all those home runs and did a lot of wonderful things on the field, both before and after his body changed and his hat size enlarged, not Albert Pujols, who’s not a bad hitter, and not even my closest competitor for the honor, that being Ken Griffey Jr., whose Seattle years were among the greatest ever submitted by anyone. Nope. I would take prime of life Derek Jeter. Give me nine of him and you can have the field.
I just think he could beat you in more ways than anyone. He’s had eight 200-hit seasons. He’s not a home run hitter, but he can hit a home run. He’s not necessarily known for base stealing, but he can steal a base. From 2000-02, he stole 81 bases while being caught 10 times. I don’t know about you, but I’m impressed. In a big situation he was almost guaranteed to put his bat on the ball. He was a very good fielder, the winner of five Gold Gloves, and, yes, I know the last two were total reputation citations for which the managers and coaches should be embarrassed. But in his prime he was a vacuum cleaner and he also had a memorable signature play in that jump-pass of a throw he would make after getting a ball in the shortstop/third base hole.
You could bat him anywhere from 1 to 3 and have a quality man there. The idea in this sport is to score more runs than the other guy, and Derek Jeter scored in excess of 100 runs 13 times while finishing with 99 two years ago. He was durable. And then there was the postseason, the amazing postseason, in which he has played a record 158 games with an OPS of .838, which ain’t bad for a shortstop.
Add it all up and what you clearly have is a Baseball Player’s Baseball Player who should be properly appreciated in every enemy ballpark, beginning with Fenway.
Through it all, he carefully guarded his image. He has always been polite and approachable, but don’t expect any money quotes. He was always respectful of the game and of his elders. Remember that “Mr. Torre” business? And didn’t we all love it when the Yankees moved into their new ballpark in 2009 and Jeter requested that, rather than having his plate appearances handled by public address man Jim Hall (and now Paul Olden), he be announced via a recording of the late Bob Sheppard, the august PA announcer who had begun working while the Great Joe D was still playing. No one viewed it as being pretentious. The unanimous verdict was, “Why not?”
(As to where Jeter ranks among Yankee greats, here is one dispassionate Boston point of view: 1. Ruth; 2. Gehrig; 3. DiMaggio; 4. Jeter; 5. Mantle.)
Jeter’s private life is somehow both mysterious and open at the same time. He remains a bachelor as he approaches his 40th birthday (June 26), but he seldom goes very long without a ravishing female at his side. He is hardly a recluse, but the media doesn’t pry too much. After all, he’s Derek Jeter. Excuse me, Captain Derek Jeter.
Yes, Captain. As such, he is supposed to have the Yankees’ best interests at heart. But that brings us to the one “but” on the Derek Jeter résumé.
Once upon a time there was a nice little baseball debate regarding a trio of magnificent American League shortstops. We were all blessed to have in our midst three fabulous two-way shortstops in Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, and Derek Jeter. It was fun stuff. It was what a good sports argument should encompass.
It came to pass that prior to the 2004 season the Yankees traded for Rodriguez, then 28 and at the absolute peak of his very formidable powers. But, wait. They both couldn’t play shortstop. One of them had to move to third. Given that it was the pretty-close-to-unanimous opinion of baseball experts that Rodriguez was a better defensive shortstop than Jeter, it would have been the proper Captainy and downright menschy thing to do had Jeter volunteered to move. But he did not volunteer and no one had the stones to either ask or make him. I would wager it was never mentioned above a whisper in any Yankee gathering. How very different things might have been in New York had A-Rod been put where he belonged, instead of being asked to play a new position. Given his peculiar psyche, many subsequent problems might have been avoided.
That’s the way it seems to me, anyway. But I’m not a Yankees fan, only a Yankees observer, and I must say I’ve never heard many people who do care about the Yankees reflect on the matter. Derek Jeter is, well, Derek Jeter. The Captain. The Shortstop. If they don’t care, why should I?
Anyway, the great man will be here Tuesday for the first of three visits this season, the final one being Games 160, 161, and 162 on Sept. 26-27-28. Nobody treated Mariano Rivera better last year than Boston did, and you know Dr. Charles Steinberg and Co. will have a ceremony of equal grandeur for Derek Jeter. The fact is, Derek Jeter does not You-Know-What, and he never did.Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.