While my stathead brethren would probably find a way to disagree, the true essence of baseball is the base hit. It’s what every hitter who’s ever picked up a stick of ash or maple (or aluminum, yecccchh) has tried to do at the plate. It’s what every pitcher on the mound and every fielder on the diamond has tried to prevent.
Some years ago it was decided 3,000 hits was the gold standard by which hitters in Major League Baseball would be measured. Before Saturday, just 27 men in history had reached that plateau. Derek Jeter blew the number away on Saturday, collecting five hits and notching 3,000 on a third-inning dinger off David Price.
Jeter made his MLB debut on May 29, 1995, a month after I turned nine. I’m now 25 with a job and bills to pay, but Jeter is still hitting, maybe not at the same clip as during his peak years of the late ’90s and early ’00s, but he’s still Jeter.
As a Red Sox fan for the last 20 years, I’ve watched Derek Jeter’s entire career from the other side. I’ve watched thousands of his at-bats, hundreds of those 3,003 hits and innumerable plays from his perch at shortstop for the last 16 years.
Immediately after he got his 3,000th hit, I tweeted a congratulatory message, but I couldn’t resist throwing in a barb about how Jeter is the most overrated player in baseball history. I believe this to be true: considering the attention paid to Jeter and the Yankees for the entirety of his career, the team and city for which he plays, his position on the field and the adherence so many baseball observers still hold to “intangibles” like leadership, class and “being a true Yankee,” Jeter’s play has been significantly inflated by media and fans through the years.
If Jeter had done the same things in Houston, or Kansas City, or Pittsburgh, there’s simply no way he’d have received the same accolades and pronouncements of immortality. Sure, Jeter is an all-time great shortstop. But he’s not the greatest, and he might not be in the top five, either.
The fact that Jeter is overrated isn’t his fault. And it could just be my anti-Yankees bias that informs this opinion. Really, I wish I could hate Derek Jeter. I wish I could have hated everything he’s done these past 16 years. I wish I could say he’s a jerk and an asshole and someone I despise with every fiber of my being.
But I can’t. Because none of that is true. It’s because of who Derek Jeter is that I sit here, having watched more of him than any non-Red Sox player in my two decades following this game, that I sit here in praise, and awe, of his accomplishments.
I define Jeter by his excellence in October (and November). Jeter has missed the playoffs just once in his career and sports an .850 OPS in 679 postseason plate appearances. I’ve seen so many of his playoff triumphs that it’s hard to remember them all: the Jeffrey Maier homer; the single most heads-up defensive play in baseball history; when he became Mr. November; his double that touched off the rally against Pedro in 2003 ALCS Game 7; and every time they won the World Series over the last 15 seasons, every time I was in the fetal position because of the Yankees’ successes, Jeter has been at the center of each moment.
I wish I could hate him for those moments. I do. But I can’t. And I know I’m not the only Red Sox fan that feels this way.
Jeter is a throwback. Every one of his 3,003 hits have been collected in the same uniform. George Brett can say that. Cal Ripken can say that. So can Robin Yount, Tony Gwynn and Craig Biggio. Those are five of my favorite players of all-time, and five guys who were loyal to one city and one group of fans during an era of rampant free agency. Jeter can now etch his name among them. The Yankees had the foresight to lock up Jeter to a 10-year pact during his absolute prime and they’ll probably wind up regretting his current deal based on the kind of performance they’ll get.
But I realized early in Jeter’s career that he would be a Yankee for life. He will never play for another team. He’ll quit before that happens. And that’s what I respect about him the most. I might hate the team he plays for and the fans he adores, but I love his devotion to that team and those fans. It’s palpable in everything he does.
In 16 years, I’ve never seen Derek Jeter give up on a play. In 16 years, I’ve never seen Derek Jeter not run out a ground ball or a pop up. In 16 years, I’ve never seen Derek Jeter show up a teammate or another player. In 16 years, I’ve never seen Derek Jeter disrespect anything except a hanging slider or a belt-high fastball.
If I ever have a son, and that son were to play baseball, there is no player that I’d want him to emulate more than Derek Jeter.
As a Red Sox fan, it’s a hard thing to admit. But as a baseball fan, it’s the highest compliment I can pay to any player.
Warning: NSFW language in video.