(Courtesy of Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News)
For almost 20 years now, Derek Jeter has been synonymous with the New York Yankees. Pick almost any term to describe the Yankees as a team and chances are it will apply perfectly to Jeter too. He's a winner, a champion, a professional. He's been consistent, overrated at times, underrated at others. He's been smart on and off the field, and downright selfish at times even as he maintains a spotless reputation as a "team first" guy in the mainstream sports media.
More than anything else, he's been one of the greatest Yankees and greatest shortstops of all time in his 19-year career, and last month he announced that this upcoming season, his 20th, would be his last. Fresh off a season-long goodbye to perhaps the most beloved Yankee of all time last season, this year Yankee fans will get to repeat those emotions with perhaps the most respected Yankee of all time. The Captain will give it one last go before calling it a career, putting a period on the end of one of the greatest shortstop careers in baseball history and signifying the official end to the Core Four Era.
The most interesting thing about Jeter's career may be the fact that he's been able to stay on top of the baseball world for so long. At 39 years old and coming off a disastrous, injury-filled 2013 season, Jeter recently beat out David Ortiz to win some online "Face of MLB" contest. As silly and pointless as those contests are, it does speak to his high standing with all baseball fans that he can get enough votes to win that when there are a ton of other younger, better players out there. I said in my Jeter retirement announcement thoughts post that Jeter was never loved by fans as much as Mo but he was definitely respected just as much. That respect is still alive and well as he enters his final season and I'm sure fans everywhere will be lining up to pay it one last time.
And honestly, how could they not? Love him or hate him as an individual player or a Yankee, it's almost impossible not to respect what Jeter has done in his professional career. He's won 5 championships, he's racked up enough playoff numbers to be at the top of the discussion for greatest postseason player in baseball history, he's top 10 all time in hits, he's the all-time Yankee leader in multiple statistical categories, he's been their captain for 10 years. He's a 1st ballot Hall of Famer, he's smooth, he's cool, he's a good looking dude, and he's managed to somehow stay out of the spotlight in New York City despite all those accolades and despite owning a Hollywood conquests list that can't be rivaled. Derek Jeter is everything that every guy wanted to be in middle school and high school, and that's why, as much as some people may hate him for all the MSM ball licking he gets, they still have to tip their cap and respect the guy for doing what he's done.
Let's also not forget that the guy was a tremendous baseball player and probably the greatest shortstop of all time. 3,316 hits, 1,876 runs scored, a .312 career batting average, 13 ASG selections, 5 Gold Gloves, 5 Silver Slugger Awards, a ROY Award, and the aforementioned 5 championship rings. Jeter has 13 seasons of 150+ games played, 13 of 100+ R scored, 12 of a .300+ average, 11 of 190+ hits, 9 of 30+ doubles, 8 of 20+ stolen bases. Not counting his '95 and 2013 seasons, Jeter only has 1 year when he hit less than .290. That's an incredible stretch of elite-level hitting skills and consistency, the kind unmatched by 99% of all MLB players. He didn't hit for a lot of power and his defense was never nearly as good as his offense, even at its peak, but to call Derek Jeter anything less than a great natural hitter would be an insult.
What remains to be seen is what kind of player Jeter will be in his final season. Turning 40 during the year, and coming off an 18-month stretch of leg injuries more serious than anything he'd gone through in the 18 years prior, the odds are stacked pretty heavily against Jeter playing up to his usual standards. He was able to get a regular offseason workout in, he reported to Spring Training on time, and he's well ahead of where he was this time last year. He's also hit just 4-24 in 9 ST games, with a single XBH, 5 Ks, and a disconcerting number of groundball outs. Jeter's mortality has started to show over the past 4 seasons and it's likely to show even more this year. He won't hit the ball as hard as he used to, he won't run as fast, and he won't make as many plays in the field. In fact, on some days he could be removed from the game for a defensive replacement.
Still, the idea that Jeter can follow in Mo's footsteps and get the chance to go out on his own terms is incredible and ultimately fitting for the final remaining member of the Core Four. Jeter got that era of Yankee baseball started in '96 with his ROY season and he'll get the chance to end it 18 years later. There will be pregame ceremonies and gifts from all the other ballclubs, although I expect the ceremonies will be a little shorter and more understated than they were for Mo given Jeter's reputation as a business-first ballplayer. There will be video packages, SportsCenter highlight montages, and interviews to honor one of the greatest Yankees to ever lace 'em up. And if Jeter's body can hold up and he can summon some of that old Captain Clutch magic, there will probably be another memorable moment or 2 to add to his already otherworldly collection.
I'm still pretty punchy from my cold and a little doped up on cold medicine, so the emotion of this post probably isn't coming through in the way that it should. The truth is, I'm ecstatic that I get the chance to see Jeter play one more time and see him get the sendoff he deserves. Online contest or not, he has been one of the faces of MLB for a long time. He is and always will be one of the first players whose name gets mentioned when the 90s-2000s era of baseball comes up, and he's one of the only ones whose name won't come up with any negative publicity attached to it. Jeter was all heart and hustle on the field, all class off it, and it's not going to be the same without him starting in 2015. He's my favorite Yankee and baseball player ever and I'm glad he'll get the chance to get the sendoff he deserves this year.