Baseball fans across the globe are poised to follow the New York Yankees next season. Some of them will root for the pinstripes; most of them will not. But all of them will be tuning in to see at least some of the 2014 Yankees season — or, as it might as well be called, the Derek Jeter farewell tour.
Call it that because he’s earned it. Over his 20-year career, Jeter has been so good that even the Boston Globe has run reports about his sporting prowess. The Globe, of course, being geographically and emotionally tied to the Boston Red Sox, the other half of what many consider the most famous rivalry in sports history. When he retires, Jeets will leave the game as the Yankees’ all-time leader in hits, games played, at-bats, stolen bases … and strikeouts. His name shows up in the running for almost every other significant Yankees record, too.
As surreal as it is to type, Mr. November went up to bat more than Mickey Mantle. He has hit almost 1,000 more pitches than Babe Ruth. And he did all of it quietly, without as much of a flicker of controversy despite being in the media capital of the world. With the sun poised to set on what will be an illustrious year career, let’s look back at how Jeter navigated some of the most tumultuous eras in Major League Baseball.
The beginning: Jeter in the steroid era
Note: That’s not to imply that Jeter did steroids. (At least, not the performance-enhancing kind.) We know he took some steroids, but that was later — and cortisone doesn’t count, anyway.
Jeter was drafted right out of high school, taken sixth overall in the 1995 MLB draft. He promptly got off to a very ugly start that saw the future Captain Clutch going 0-14 at bat, with seven strikeouts and four errors. Had that been on the big stage and under the bright lights of Yankee Stadium, it would’ve undoubtedly caused vast swathes of the notoriously fickle New York fan base to feel that the Yankees had blown their pick. Luckily, the shortstop from Kalamazoo (by way of New Jersey) was playing for the Gulf Coast Yankees in the minor leagues, and mean tweets were still shouted at the television in the privacy of a fan’s own home. By the time he finally made it to the Bronx, he was better, but not by much — he was sent back down to to Class AAA after a handful of games.
So, in an interesting quirk, Jeter had been a professional baseball player for four years by the time he won Rookie of the Year in 1996, the same year he helped the Yankees win the World Series. After 1996, Jeter would be a long way from the minor leagues. He would also stay far away from the widespread use of steroids, which would come to categorize his first few years in the league, while players like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa broke home run records and baseball law by getting juiced.
Over Jeter’s career with the MLB in the steroid era — or from about 1996 until 2003 — he managed to pad his resume: five-time All Star, four-time World Series Champion, All-Star MVP, World Series MVP, the aforementioned Rookie of the Year, a batting average of .311, and to reiterate, four rings and zero controversy. Mr. November also put himself on track to a serious paycheck in 2001, nabbing himself the second-largest deal in the salary cap-free MLB, pulling in $189 million over 10 years. Second largest only to Jeter’s later teammate, then- Texas Ranger Alex Rodriguez.
The prime: Jeter gets paid while the league goes Moneyball
While Jeets was getting paid, the league was undergoing a serious talent reassessment. Or rather, the league was finally paying attention to some very old ideas about how players should be measured statistically. Statistics and tradition being the twin elements of the heart of baseball, perhaps that could be understood. There was no Wins Against Replacement metric in the “good old days,” after all — just bubble gum, hot dogs, and baseball. Or something.
But while some players saw themselves exposed by the newfound scrutiny the “stat-heads” and “bean-counters” brought to the game, Jeter did just fine. He posted in the top 10 for Wins Above Replacement twice (once in 2006 and again in 2009), and cleaned up in offensive WAR — how much better he is on offense than the average MLB player — where he’s still second in active players overall. Sabermetrics may have sunk some careers, but in Mr. November’s case, it simply reinforced it. Derek Jeter: Not bad at baseball. Well done, sabermetrics. They should make a movie about you.
This was when Jeter’s true sports analog emerged, and it wasn’t a baseball player at all — in all of American professional sports, Captain Clutch is most similar to San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan. A similarly quiet talent with a game that’s a whole lot better than advertised without being underrated, Duncan and Jeter are so similar in their professional career paths (winning a championship in their rookie year, being an integral part of a championship contender from the mid-’90s to the present) that it’s enough to make you wonder if Jeter also has a Merlin tattoo.
The falling action: Jeter after sabermetrics
So Jeter had survived the allure of ‘roids, at least as far as we know, and he’s been the rare superstar that had his reputation enhanced by advanced stats. Where else was he to go? What else do you do when you’re the kind of superstar that every league covets? The answer: You go out on top. By announcing his retirement in the offseason, the Yankees are bound to try for another World Series.
Coming off of a disastrous pair of seasons in 2012 and 2013 that saw him play in three and 17 games, respectively, Jeter’s bothersome left ankle, broken in the 2012 ALCS against the Detroit Tigers has been well-rested in preparation for what he knew for months would be his last season. While it was certainly impressive to see Jeter batting over .300 two years ago, at the age of 38, it will be more gratifying to see him finish out 2014 without winding up on the disabled list.