Last week, longtime New York Yankees shortstop and future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter announced that the 2014 season will be his last. Not a shock if you have paid any attention to the Bronx Bombers, as Jeter struggled to stay healthy last year and his defense(which was never as top shelf as many thought)has gotten to a point to where he might be better suited to be the team’s DH. But this isn’t about Jeter’s poor defense or his body falling apart. Nope, this is about how much respect I have for Derek Jeter despite my hatred of the New York Yankees.
As a very young man, I understood why I needed to hate the Yankees. Growing up a Royals fan, there was no greater nemesis for Kansas City than the Yankees. Kids today might not believe us, but back in the late 70’s/early 80’s the Yankees and Royals were about as heated a rivalry as you can get. Knowing this, I hated the Bronx Bombers. I’ve held onto that hatred all these years later and for the most part the Yankees make sure I should hate them. But like anything in life, they are exceptions to the rule. Derek Jeter is one of those exceptions.
I specifically remember the Yankee teams of the late 90’s. These weren’t your normal Yankees. They consisted of homegrown talent(Rivera, Jeter, Williams, Posada) and veterans that weren’t star players but were fantastic role players(Brosius, O’Neill, Martinez). They weren’t a team consisting of the biggest contracts or the biggest stars. They weren’t a team built by outbidding all the other teams. They were a team made of savvy veterans and top prospects. As much as I hated the Yankees, I had to show these Joe Torre led teams respect. They did it the right way and were fun to watch. Sure, I still wanted the other team to win but I wasn’t upset the Yankees won during this period. In my eyes, they had earned it and Jeter was a big part of it.
Over the years, the legend of Derek Jeter grew. Whether it was rallying his team to victory or running into the stands to make a catch, Jeter did what needed to be done.
There is the great defensive play against Oakland that is ingrained in most of our minds:
and there is Game Four of the 2001 World Series that anointed Jeter “Mr. November”:
Derek Jeter might have very well been the face of Major League Baseball during a period of giant behemoths, clobbering their way to baseball immortality(even if it wasn’t the way they wanted to be remembered). If you were to explain to someone foreign to the game why we love baseball, we would show them clips of Derek Jeter. Jeter has been what is best about the game for years now and I say that with full confidence. Derek wasn’t the best hitter, or hit the most home runs or stole the most bases. But what he did do was play the game like you should and performed at a top level for two decades. When the only thing you can really knock him for is his defense being about average for many years than you have a great example of a great ballplayer.
I plan to root against the Yankees this year like I do most years. But deep down, I will probably be rooting for ‘Number 2’ to be able to go out on a pedestal the way Mariano Rivera was able to this past season. I hope that even the people who jeer for Jeter realize we probably won’t see one of his caliber for years to come. Derek Jeter was great for baseball and everything he stood for. I can try to guess what his greatest achievement was all these years later(and being single most of this time while staying out of the tabloids might rank up there with his achievements on the diamond) but it’s hard to pick just one. I think if forced to, I would say his biggest accomplishment was elevating his teammates up to his level. Being the captain of the Yankees all these years means greater responsibility but it also means being able to pull greatness out of players who might not be great. Jeter was a great motivator and made his teams better just by being around them. That should be his lasting legacy. He was what most baseball players should strive to be. For that I respect the hell out of Derek Jeter. Even if he was a Yankee.