“He’s basically shy. And I know most people don’t see him that way. He’s so fluid among people. He knows what he is as far as the matinee idol stuff, and he wears it well. He has no pretenses. He’s real. He enjoys himself and makes it easy for others to enjoy him.” – Joe Torre, Yankees Manager
In the nations most intense media spotlight, on the nations most storied team, Derek Jeter has been the face of the national pastime for over a decade. In the biggest games, for the biggest team, he has made his best performances and no matter how many stars the New York Yankees have accumulated over the years, there has never been any doubt who the main man in town is.
In many ways Jeter’s stature has gone beyond his actual performances on the field. Neither a power hitter, a true speed guy or an explosive defensive player, Jeter has challenged for batting titles but has never been someone who you could see challenging records. However, by the time he retires the legacy he will leave will be one of winning.
The Columbus Clippers
Drafted 6th overall in the ‘92 draft, straight out of high school, by ‘94 he would find himself on one the great minor league teams of recent memory. That year the Columbus Clippers would boast a number a future Major League stars, the core of which would be a huge part in the Yankees resurgence in the 90’s and a period of dominance that would see them reach a number of milestones. Even in this hot bed of talent it was Jeter who Baseball America would name as the Minor League player of the year.
The Yankee Captain
In 1995 Jeter would spend a brief amount of time in New York but it would be in ‘96 that he would make himself a permanent feature in Yankee pinstripes. The first rookie to be the opening day shortstop for the Yankees since ‘62, he celebrated by hitting his first career Home Run on that very day.
It would be a special year for Jeter and the Yankees, he would win the Rookie of the Year Award and the Yankees would have an epic season that would lay the foundations of a dynasty. They would win just their second division title in 16 years (an unfamiliarly long drought for the proud Yankees) and would go on a playoff march with Jeter at the heart of it.
Many point to the ALCS against Baltimore as the turning point in ’96. In game 1 of the series, with the Yankees down 4-3 in the 8th, Jeter stepped up to the plate and he drove the ball deep to the opposite field. It looked like Tony Tarasco was set at the wall to make the catch when a fan reached out of the stands to snatch it before Tarasco could make a play. It was called a Home Run by the officials, tying the game. The Yankees would go on to beat the Orioles and beat Atlanta in the World Series, coming back from a 2-0 series deficit.
1997 would see New York continue to improve, although they would miss out on the division title but they would make up for it in ‘98 winning a then record 114 games. Jeter would rank 3rd in MVP voting and the Yankees would go on to win three consecutive World Series titles in a period of dominance that would see them win ten straight games in World Series play.
In those three successive World Series Jeter would bat .375 and be declared the World Series MVP in the so-called ‘Subway Series’ in 2000. In that series he hit .409 with an impressive .864 slugging percentage including two Home Runs that broke the back of their cross-town rival Mets.
Having lost game 3 thanks to some late heroics by the Mets hitters, Jeter made sure that the momentum quickly shifted back to the Yankees. He took the first pitch of game 4 and send it over the fence and would follow that up by leading off the third with a triple, later coming home to score the crucial run.
10 Years, $189m
2001 would be an eventful year for Derek Jeter. It would start with a strange off-season, which would see general managers throwing money around like confetti. Jeter would sign the second biggest contract in baseball history and in 2007 he was the third highest paid player in the league. All that while being romantically linked to the likes of Mariah Carey, Scarlett Johansson and Tyra Banks.
After an uneventful season he would go on to have one of his most lauded post-seasons. It began in the Divisional Series against Oakland. Facing elimination in game 3 with Jeremy Giambi on first base, an A’s hitter drove the ball into the right field corner. The Yankee outfielder (Shane Spencer) fielded the ball and made a wild throw home attempting to prevent Giambi from scoring the go ahead run. The ball dribbled down the first base line when out of nowhere Jeter got to the ball, shovelled it over to the catcher (Jorge Posada) who tagged Giambi out at home and allowed the Yankees to win the game and subsequently the series. The play became known as ‘The Flip’ and what made it noteworthy is that, as the shortstop, there was no reason for Jeter to have been anywhere near the play.
The play would spur the Yankees on to beating the Mariners in 5 in the Conference Final and onto a match up against Arizona in the World Series. The series would not start well for New York, losing the first two games. They won game 3 but game 4 was not going well with the Diamondbacks up 3-1 with their closer on the mound. The Yankees were able to tie the game in the ninth and in the tenth, with the clock past midnight making this the first time a World Series had been played in November, Jeter hit the game winning Home Run down the short porch in RF, tying the series at two.
Sadly for Yankee fans it was a rare spark from their leader who batted just .148 as the Yankees lost the series in 7. Their streak of World Series titles would be snapped and they have won just three of nine post-season series since, including two on their way to losing the 2003 World Series against Florida.
A player renowned for his ’clutch performances’, Jeter hit .324 in post-season play from ‘96-2000, .295 since and that is against his .317 lifetime average during the regular season. This has caused many critics to suggest that his reputation as a big game player has been exaggerated and that he has merely been able to maintain his level of performance no matter what game it is. It also helps that he is on a side that has been in the playoffs every year of his career and has been good enough to win one of baseballs toughest divisions in all but two of those years, giving him more opportunity than most.
Another criticism lies in Jeter’s defensive play. The winner of three Gold Glove Awards from 2004-06 there have been many attempts to debunk his claim to those awards. In fact some have even claimed him to be amongst the worst defensive shortstops.
It is also interesting to note that 2004 saw him make another one of those high profile plays, this time against their arch-rivals the Boston Red Sox. With the game tied and in extra innings, the Red Sox had runners at second and third with two outs and Trot Nixon at the plate. Nixon hit a pop fly up the left field line that would have scored both runners if it had landed fair. Jeter was able to catch the ball and his momentum took him face first into the third row leaving him bloodied and bruised but he had saved the game. The Yankees fell behind in the top of the 13th but would go on to score twice and win the game in the bottom of the inning. The play would be the highest rated play of the year according to MLB.com and he would win that first Gold Glove.
In many regards it almost seems odd that Derek Jeter is as big a name as he is. Never controversial off the field he has also only had mediocre statistical success. In fact he has only ever led the league in hits and runs, neither particularly glamorous statistics, and even his three Gold Gloves have not given him a reputation for defensive excellence – those awards may have even led to more people questioning those talents. Even through all this no one questions Derek Jeter’s position on the Yankee team, even with a roster full of All Stars. Over the last decade and on arguably the best team in baseball Derek Jeter has been the most valuable player.