OK. Maybe Derek Jeter himself doesn’t drive me batty. After all, I haven’t met the guy or anything. I guess it’s his fans that really drive me nuts. The fact that every aspect of his game has been overrated to the point of insanity isn’t his fault. He’s just a guy who has made a career of being a decent ballplayer. I shouldn’t blame him for taking advantage of it. I just need to ask, why the heck does everyone think he’s so good? Someone actually referred to him as a Hall-of-Famer to me recently. When will it end? Jeter’s career has been a case of “right place at the right time” to a degree that even Tom Brady can’t approach. Take Jeter out of New York, or shift his career a year or two in either direction, and everything would have been completely different.
Jeter’s first full year in the bigs was 1996. He performed well, especially for a rookie shortstop. More important, the Yankees were on their way to their first World Series crown in quite some time. The national media was thrilled. Finally they could write about the team in the country’s biggest market. But, what would they focus their stories on? Don Mattingly wasn’t on the team anymore. The stories of Donnie Baseball finally winning it all were out. Paul O’Neill was a bit of a grump, so that’s not exactly a great story. Neither were bland Andy Pettitte or Tino Martinez. Maybe the Wade Boggs ring could get some play, but not much. So, they turn to the kid shortstop. He’s playing pretty well. Might even win the AL ROY. Great, there’s a story that can be written. So, writers across the country, and even more in NY, tout the young Jeter in every article they write. What are the story lines? The potential ROY is a good one. But, even writers know that winning a rookie of the year doesn’t always mean a great player. The list of players who have won the award isn’t nearly as impressive as the list of players who haven’t. So, after a few cycles of that story, they need more. This is when they realize that there’s this shortstop in Seattle who’s off to a potential MVP season. He might be the best shortstop ever. It turns out, the good shortstop is friends with the one in NY. What a story. There’s another cycle. Then, once it becomes clear that the Yanks will win it all, they kid shortstop becomes the reason. They can’t write about his stats…they’re barely above average. They’re certainly nothing compared to the Seattle guy. So, they decide it’s his intangibles. His leadership. The way he handles himself. Those stories are nice for the writers. First, they’re almost impossible to disprove. They also allow the writers a little creativity. They get to use all kinds of adjectives in their stories. This makes for an almost endless cycle…grit, toughness, professionalism, psyche, clubhouse demeanor, etc. It lasts all year. Then, Jeter does win the ROY, unanimously at that. What a story…the undisputed rookie of the year. The fact that the runners up for the award consisted of James Baldwin and Tony Clark isn’t mentioned. The whole off-season is filled with stories of the Yankees and their super young shortstop.
The next season, Nomar Garciaparra arrives on the scene. Not only is he a shortstop, but he puts up amazing numbers. 30 HR, 98 RBI and a .306 average? From anybody, that’s an amazing season. From a shortstop? That was even better then that guy from Seattle did in ’97. Clearly, in Nomar and Rodriguez, we had possibly the best two shortstops ever. The stories about that duo would be endless. But, they wouldn’t sell as well in NY. Wouldn’t it be great if one of them played in NY to reach that market? What if, instead of a shortstop duo in Boston and Seattle, there was a shortstop trio including NY. Perfect. There’s always a weak link or two whenever a Big Three or Fab Five are tossed about. Nobody would even notice that Jeter wasn’t in the same class as the other two. They could just claim he belonged there because he had the ring. 1998 brought more of the same. Rodriguez had a monster year in Seattle (.310-42-124). Nomar did the same in Boston (.323-35-122). I bet there’s never been a pair of shortstops to put up numbers like that in one year. Jeter had a decent year (.324-19-84) but to say he was in the same league as the other two was a joke. Thankfully, for the writers, Jeter’s team had one of the all-time great seasons. So, the trinity continued…Seattle and Boston with the stats, NY with the rings. Interestingly, another shortstop (Damion Easley) put up a .271-27-100 stat line in 1998 (after going .264-22-72 in ’97). Why was Jeter included in the trinity, and not Easley? Dean Palmer went .278-34-119 in 1998. Why wasn’t it a fab five of shortstops? Easley and Palmer weren’t nearly as good as Nomar and ARod. They were about as good as Jeter, with more power but a lower average. So, why did Jeter make the trio, over the other two? Easley played in Detroit, and Palmer in Kansas City. The writers didn’t need those media markets as much as NY.
It went on like this for the next six or seven years. The Yankees won more titles, so the “knows how to win” story could still be written. Jeter’s cute, so he got voted onto a few all-star teams. And, the ones he didn’t get voted on, Joe Torre was there to select him as a reserve. (At one point, the AL team had 4 shortstops to get the people on the team who actually deserved to be there.) The reporters would come up with odd things that Jeter did well. I actually heard during a Yankees broadcast that Jeter was the best ever at fielding a high chopper over the pitcher’s mound. Really? How is that even determined? They might find some streak he was on, like number of games reached base or seasons with 200 hits. After all, NY has loved streaks since the forties. They never quite mention why a streak that can be extended by going 0 for 3 with a hit-by-pitch is worth tracking. Or why it’s hasn’t been tracked before or since. They go on and on that he’s the first player to win the MVP of the All-Star game and World Series in the same year. Huh? Do either of those awards mean anything? They overblow plays he makes. (Two that come to mind are the “flip” he made during the playoffs against Oakland, and the dive into the stands against the Sox in ’04. Check out youtube, and I’m sure you can find those plays to watch again. On the first play, notice that the ball was on line and set to tag out Giambi before Jeter grabbed it and ran it into foul territory. He actually made it a more difficult play since the catcher had to sweep farther to make the tag. On the second, notice that he caught the ball in fair territory, and instead of simply turning right and running into the outfield he dove into the stands. Both plays are hyped up to the moon. If anyone else makes the plays, they’re not even mentioned during the game story.)
So here we are, twelve years later. Jeter’s never led the league in any important category. He hasn’t won a major award. He’s won some stuff that fans vote on, but that’s about it. After a very long-winded post (sorry…I even edited some stuff out), I’m left with one question.
Why does everyone insist he’s so good?
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