This is the twilight of Derek Jeter as a baseball player. The icon is playing his final month of the regular season as the shortstop of the New York Yankees. I know that sports stars can seem as disposable as tube socks. Sure, they come and go all the time. Just when we thought there could never be another hoopster of Michael Jordan’s stature, behold LeBron James. Yankees fans of an older generation mourned the 1951 retirement of Joe DiMaggio, only to look to The Yankee Clipper’s side in the outfield and spot a rookie named Mickey Mantle, the man who would go on to make his indelible mark on the franchise for the next 17 years.
Still, I insist, Jeter represents a different case. He is not irreplaceable — I mean, who is? Nobody.
But it’s fair to say that we doe-eyed baseball fans will never see another shortstop (or perhaps any player at all) quite like The Captain (his nickname and actual unofficial job title to boot).
Jeter is the ultimate professional. He observes the fundamentals of his craft. He works hard everyday. He doesn’t squander a single at bat, even when the Yankees are winning or losing by 10 runs. He respects his opponents. He appreciates his teammates. He doesn’t engage in anything similar to dancing in the end zone after making a big play.
I recently met Graig Nettles, a Yankee great from the 1970s and 1980s, at Yankee Stadium. As we watched the game from a private box above home field, I asked him if Jeter would have been as great a player in his day. Nettles looked at me like I had sprouted another head.
“Of course, he would!” Nettles said emotionally. “He does everything right. He comes to play everyday. He respects the game. He could have played in Babe Ruth’s era and been a great player.”
Remember, Jeter has becomes the Yankees all-time hits leader — more than 3,400 and counting — and done everything else while playing in the cauldron of the New York media scene.
Here, too, Jeter stands apart. He has carefully managed, perhaps through strict media training, to show up for every required interview but never saying anything reckless, damaging to his personal brand, or embarrassing to his employer, the Yankees. He has mastered the fine art of a celebrity hiding in plain sight. Perhaps only Bob Dylan — who told Rolling Stone in 2006 that Jeter was the baseball player that he most liked to watch — has done better at this. Dylan plays 100 concerts a year around the world, and aside from introducing the members of his stage band, he almost never speaks to the audience. Hiding in plain sight!
Jeter is, of course, baseball’s ultimate symbol of winning since he broke in, in mid-1995, before taking over the shortstop position on Opening Day of 1996 (when he hit a home run). He has led the Yankees to five World Series titles — and led by example.
I could go on much longer, and no doubt you’ll be reading and vexing other writers’ restless-farewell pieces. I leave you with this about my favorite player.
I invite you to take this Derek Jeter quiz and test your knowledge:
1. What Oakland A’s player did Jeter, with his amazing flip-toss, throw out at home plate during the 2001 playoffs?
2. What New York Mets runner did Jeter throw out at home plate to save the opening game of the 2001 World Series?
3. What pitcher did Jeter hit that home run off on Opening Day 1996?
4. In what World Series did Jeter earn the sudden accolade of Mister November?
5. In what Michigan city did Jeter grow up?
6. What college did he turn down to sign with the Yankees?
7. Against what team did Jeter memorably dive headlong into the third-base stands after catching a foul pop up in 2004?
8. What product did Jeter and the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner endorse in a funny commercial poking fun at his supposed late nights in Manhattan?
9. What is the name of his charitable foundation?
10. How many times has Jeter won the Most Valuable Player award of the American League?
Answers: 1. Jeremy Giambi 2. Timo Perez 3. Dennis Martinez 4. 2001 5. Kalamazoo 6. University of Michigan 7. Boston Red Sox 8. Visa 9. Turn 2 Foundation 10. None (amazingly)