Derek Jeter Is Underrated, Somehow

Jeter Week was ridiculous and way too much. But Jeter really was a great ballplayer, and really was the kind of charismatic superstar baseball needs more of.

by Sean Newell
May 15 2017, 6:59pm

Hola haters © Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

The recent Jeter Week festivities have concluded, but the Jeter Conversation may never end. Many have pointed out that, in one week, Major League Baseball did more to promote a player who retired three years ago than it has to promote any single current player all season. It seems silly for MLB to wonder why it has no star on the level of LeBron James or Tom Brady when it's living in the past like this, but you don't want use Derek Jeter to make this argument.

Years of above-average play, punctuated by stand-out moments, and a whole lot of winning—all in the major market—make Jeter something of a perfect storm. He came into New York and almost immediately anchored a dynasty for a franchise that trades in dynasties. He played his entire career with Yankees and if you look at the team leaders for the major offensive categories you will find three names: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Derek Jeter. No Yankee has more hits than Jeter. We might never see a career like his again and it sometimes feels like you've got to apologize when you say that.

The reason for the backlash is obvious. Jeter's career coincided with an explosion of media coverage and baseball fans in places outside of New York, and some in New York (sorry, Mets fans), began to resent having the Yankees and Jeter shoved in their faces all the goddamned time. That is totally understandable. The obnoxious New York Sports Fan and Count The Rings (27, btw) shirts only add fuel to the fire. Again, totally understandable. That ESPN decided to have round-the-clock coverage of his jersey retirement, however, is not Jeter's fault. That coverage and the reaction to it, was Jeter's career in a nutshell. A faction of baseball fans reacting to the overexposure of a legitimately great player by claiming that he wasn't really that great.

No, Derek Jeter will not be the best player inducted into the Hall of Fame. No, he wasn't even the best shortstop on his team after they acquired Alex Rodriguez. No one in their right mind could argue that Jeter was better than Rod. But that isn't the point.

Just as it's unfair to compare Rod the Yankee to Jeter the Yankee, it's unfair to compare Jeter the player to Rod the player. Jeets may not have hit 50 home runs, but he was much more than a does-the-little-things guy. We're not talking about David Eckstein, here. We're talking about a guy who finished his career with a .310 batting average and a career WAR better than Tony Gwynn, Eddie Murray, and Manny Ramirez, among others. He also did do the little things, and was a leader, and a good clubhouse guy and all of those other intangible things people love. And he won five World Series. The most legitimate critique of Jeter's career is that he was a jack of all trades, and master of (mostly) none. Especially defense, my editors would like to inform you.

What he did master was assuming the role of Ballplayer to Remember. Lots of guys play the game the right way, run out ground balls, get their uniforms dirty, etc. Mike Trout does it and he is the best player in baseball. He's also just a dude playing baseball.

Jeter bought into the mythos surrounding baseball and the Yankees. Long after the legendary Yankee Stadium announcer Bob Sheppard died, Jeter continued to be announced at Yankee Stadium with a recording of Sheppard's voice. After they tore down Old Yankee Stadium, he stole the famous Joe DiMaggio sign that read "I want to thank the good lord for making me a Yankee." In his final month of playing time, Jeter reflected on his career and said "I got a chance to be the shortstop for the New York Yankees. And there's only one of those."

His meticulously crafted image was all geared toward one thing: letting you know that he was a player who took this seriously. He had fun, but he also ate up the historical significance that only really shows up in baseball. That resonated with people—and media—and his career became almost like history-in-action. Call it gravitas, call it whatever, but it was something he was uniquely capable of pulling off. Being a great player, and winning very early and very often tied the whole package together.

The Yankees, their fans, and media enablers can be insufferable and the Jeter saturation is rightfully enraging. But don't kid yourself into thinking he was overrated. You might, somehow, not be giving Derek Jeter enough credit.

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