After tonight—or as of yesterday, depending on the rain—Derek Jeter will have played his final game in Yankee Stadium. It's as fine a time as any to note, for the record, that Derek Jeter was an OK ballplayer. He was pretty good at playing baseball, overall, and he did it for a pretty long time.
The Yankees and the mass media and the sports-marketing world are busy bidding farewell to Captain Clutch, Mr. November, an immortal champion who stood above all other immortals and champions, the embodiment of everything great and righteous in America's pastime. This is all horseshit and branding, and plenty of people are naturally reacting to it as such, and pointing out that Captain Clutch was a lazy and lousy defensive player, an aloof and selfish millionaire wrapped in a cocoon of banality woven by multiple advertising and publicity departments. And "Captain Clutch," the mythic figure, was all those terrible things. But Derek Jeter was OK.
You have to be good at baseball to last 20 seasons in the major leagues. Jeter will retire in 26th place, all time, in number of games played, right below Tony Perez and above Mel Ott—two good players, both in the Hall of Fame. Fine company. He is No. 10 all-time in plate appearances, No. 10 in runs scored, and No. 6 all-time in hits. He was a successful batter in productive lineups for many years.
He was not Babe Ruth at the plate. No one but Babe Ruth has ever been Babe Ruth. He was not Ted Williams or Rickey Henderson. Spectators did not come away from seeing Derek Jeter marveling at the stupendous, unimaginable feats of hitting they had seen. But he did lots and lots of damage. He got many big hits and contributed to many big rallies. Pitchers would have preferred not to have to pitch to him.
Defensively, it's true, he was dreadful. Like many highly focused hitters, Jeter treated his defensive duties as an afterthought—neglecting the fundamentals of positioning and movement, allowing hundreds of fieldable balls to pass out of his reach, where they would be scored as hits and blamed on the pitcher. His considerable athletic abilities allowed him to sometimes make spectacular leaping and twisting plays on misjudged balls that better shortstops would have played routinely.
People enjoyed watching him make those plays, and that enjoyment led to his winning five Gold Gloves. That misplaced acclaim, in turn, helped spur more advanced analysis of defensive play in baseball, a body of knowledge which will ensure that no one ever again will be able to play shortstop as badly as Jeter for as long as he did. And that gave fans something to argue about, which is an important part of sports.
Regardless, on balance, Jeter's good hitting helped his team more than his bad fielding hurt it. The statistical ledger says so—by Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference, his glovework drops him from being the 20th most productive position player of all time to the 58th. Having the 58th most productive career among non-pitchers in major-league history is still a solid achievement.
This level of ability made Jeter fit right in on a long series of winning Yankees teams. He won four World Series in his first six seasons, and one more much later. The front-loading of that success might suggest that much of the credit belonged to his early teammates; then again, if Jeter's teammates were responsible for those championships, he can't be personally blamed much for the relatively lean years, either. Baseball remains a team game, for all its celebration of individual heroes.
Nonetheless, Jeter did stand out as a fine individual performer. In his early years, Jeter was clearly the third-best of the sport's three young star shortstops. Nomar Garciaparra—hitting 30 or more home runs, or batting over .350—was a much more remarkable hitter, but injuries wore him down, while Jeter kept producing. And then there was Alex Rodriguez: not only the best all-around shortstop but a home-run king, a genuine prodigy, a once-in-a-lifetime do-everything performer.
Do everything, that is, except play shortstop for the Yankees. When Rodriguez showed up in the Bronx, Jeter would not yield the job. It was a selfish decision and the situation hurt the team. But powerful egos, misplaced competitiveness, and unrealistic self-appraisals are common features in elite athletes. Whatever wrong Jeter may have done in the intrasquad rivalry, it was the Yankees' fault for not managing him better.
And the Yankee fans didn't mind his character flaws, such as they were. To the limited extent that they were able to know Jeter, they liked what they saw. He was not a phenomenon like Reggie Jackson or a transcendent popular icon like Joe DiMaggio. He was a tribal figure—beloved by people who root for the Yankees, despised by people who root against the Yankees.
Neither response had much to do with Jeter himself. Like most star athletes of his era, he kept his public persona intentionally blank and dull, but with none of the awkward self-consciousness of the similarly restrained Rodriguez. Depending on their allegiances, baseball fans could imagine him to be classy or imagine him to be pissy, and the limited evidence could support either conclusion.
Physically, he was a pretty young man who got thicker and weirder-looking into his 30s, only to cut a gaunt and striking figure as he arrived at middle age. (This is the one aspect in which he truly did parallel Cal Ripken, Jr.). The gossip around him involved the most mundane, heterosexual sort of salaciousness: Wealthy, successful athlete has his choice of attractive women, and exercises that choice.
Add it all together—the longevity, the doubles power, his pesky and opportunistic base running, the championships, the selfishness and bad defense, all the projected virtue and vice—and you get something like a lower-grade, non-malignant version of Pete Rose. Baseball Reference calculates that the player whose career most closely resembles Jeter's is Craig Biggio of the Houston Astros.
Biggio retired seven years ago, with 3,060 hits and 1,844 runs scored. Jeter currently has 3,461 and 1,922, respectively, but Biggio had more doubles, home runs, and stolen bases. This year, in his second year on the Hall of Fame ballot, Biggio got 74.8 percent of the vote, missing induction by two votes. He will almost certainly make it next time around; no one really objects to the notion that a player like Craig Biggio belongs in the Hall of Fame.
And so Jeter will belong in the Hall of Fame too. His uniform number, 2, will be retired by the Yankees, like every other single-digit uniform number has been, from Billy Martin's 1 through Roger Maris's 9. He's part of history.
[Image via Getty]