The Yankee captain, Mr. November, perhaps the greatest shortstop in baseball history, is set to retire at the end of the 2014 season. Rob Scarborough takes a look back at Derek Jeter’s career.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! No, it isn’t the holiday season just yet, but for many its a time that is just as joyous. Of course I’m talking about baseball season. Spring is here, and the boys of summer have already begun the grueling journey towards World Series glory. This season will be a bittersweet one for the league, the Yankees and their fans specifically. That’s because the time has finally come to say goodbye to one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Derek Jeter announced in February that this will be his last season, officially ending an era, not just for the Yankees, but for baseball as a whole.
Jeter has been a poster boy for everything good about the sport since the beginning of his career 19 years ago. He has played his entire career under the brightest lights imaginable and has never once cracked. Let’s take a look at how Jeter became the most important man in NY sports:
Jeter entered the league without a lot of fanfare. After playing 13 games in the 1995 season filling in for injured infielder Pat Kelly, he was demoted to Class AAA where he would finish the season. He was rated the sixth-best prospect by Baseball America heading into the 1996 season, when he became the first rookie in 34 years to start at shortstop for the Yankees.
Despite some lingering doubt from management, Jeter wasted little time proving that they had made the right decision, hitting his first big league home run on opening day. Proving his worth would be a recurring theme for the rookie. He exceeded expectations all season long, finishing with a .314 batting average, 10 home runs, and 78 RBI to go along with 104 runs scored. He received all 28 first place votes in Rookie of the Year balloting, making him only the fifth unanimous winner in the history of the award. He was just getting started.
The Yankees made the playoffs in 1996 and Jeter was moved to the leadoff spot. During the American League Championship Series’ (ALCS) opening game Jeter would become a hero, while experiencing his first taste of big league controversy. Down 4-3 in the 8th inning against the Baltimore Orioles, Jeter hit a ball that would be ruled a game tying home run. Despite a clear case of fan interference, the play stood as called and Jeter had tied the game with the first home run of his postseason career. The Yankees would go on to win that game and the series on their way to the franchise’s first World Series Championship in 16 years. Jeter finished the playoffs batting .361 with 12 runs scored.
Becoming a Star
In 1997 Major League Baseball was witnessing the beginning of a changing of the guard. Veteran shortstops Cal Ripken, Ozzie Smith, and Barry Larkin (amongst others), were aging and on their way out of the league. Chomping at the bits, ready to stake their claim as the future of the position, was a new crop of young studs, a crop which included Alex Rodriguez, and Nomar Garciaparra, a crop which Jeter was considered to be at the forefront of.
Jeter turned in a solid 1997 season. He was moved to the leadoff position in the batting order and finished the season with 190 hits, 10 home runs and 70 RBI, while batting .291. The Yankees again made the postseason. However, they were eliminated in the American League Division Series (ALDS) in five games by the Cleveland Indians.
The following season would prove to be a special one for the Yankees. The team would win 114 games on their way to a World Series sweep of the San Diego Padres and their second championship in three years. That team is considered to be one of the greatest baseball teams of all time. Jeter, 24 years old at the time, led the league in runs scored with 127. He added 19 home runs, 84 RBI and a .324 average. He finished third in MVP voting and was elected to his first All-Star Game. There was no longer any question. Derek Jeter had arrived and he was legit.
Derek Jeter made $750,000 dollars in the 1998 season. He was eligible for arbitration in 1999 and was awarded $5 million by the arbitrator. Now being paid like a star, Jeter continued to perform like one, on and off of the field. He made his second All-Star Game in 99′ and finished with career highs in a variety of offensive categories including average (.349), home runs (24) and hits (219). He also raked in over 100 RBI for the only time in his career, becoming only the second Yankee shortstop to ever do so, and the first since 1931. The stellar play continued into the postseason. Jeter would hit no less than .350 in all of the three series the Yankees played in on their way to another World Series Championship.
The 2000 season got off to an interesting start for the Yankees star. During the offseason Jeter and the Yankees had negotiated a seven-year, $118.5 million contract. However, prior to the deal being finalized Yankees owner George Steinbrenner got cold feet. In the end, the two sides agreed to a one-year deal worth $10 million that allowed them to avoid arbitration.
With a contract in place, Jeter took the field for another season. Regardless of what he may have been feeling about his contract status, he never let it affect his play. He led the team in hitting with a .339 batting average, belted 15 home runs, and stole 22 bases while making another All-Star Game appearance. In the 2000 All-Star game he would be the stand out, scoring three hits including the game winner, and winning the game’s Most Valuable Player Award.
Jeter would struggle against the Oakland Athletics in the 2000 ALDS, batting only .211. Nonetheless the Yankees advanced to face the Seattle Mariners in the ALCS. In this series Jeter would return to form, finishing the series with a .318 average heading into the World Series.
Against the New York Mets Jeter would take his game to new heights. He finished the series with a .409 average, with two doubles, a triple and two home runs, while extending his World Series hitting streak to 14 games. The Yankees won the series 4-1 earning their third consecutive championship, the fourth in the five years Jeter had been with the team. He was awarded the Most Valuable Player award for the World Series, becoming the first and only player to win the All-Star Game and World Series MVP awards in the same season.
Prior to the start of the 2001 season the Yankees and Jeter were finally able to settle in on a long term deal. Two months after future teammate Alex Rodriguez signed a then record ten-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers, Jeter signed a ten-year contract of his own, worth $189 million. The contract made Jeter the third highest player in the league, behind Rodriguez, and Manny Ramirez.
With contract worries behind him, and the team showing that they were firmly invested in him as the face and future of the team, Jeter geared up for the season. He would post another solid season, making his fourth All-Star team and batting .311 with 21 home runs, 74 RBI, 110 runs scored, and 27 stolen bases while once again leading the Yankees to the playoffs.
The Yankees would lose in the World Series that year to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Regardless, it was in this postseason that media and fans first started to refer to the shortstop as Mr. November. A nickname that was a nod to Reggie Jackson’s famous moniker, as well as a reminder of the horrific events of September 11, 2001. Those events, and the subsequent postponements to the MLB season led to the final games of the World Series being played in November for the first time ever, as opposed to the traditional October finish.
Jeter struggled overall in the World Series but did hit a game-winning home run in extra innings of game 4, which was the catalyst for the Mr. November name. Earlier in the postseason however, Jeter turned in what would become the signature play of his career. The play, simply referred to as “The Flip” was a combination of grace, instinct, timing, and magic. After outfielder Shane Spencer’s throw missed the cut-off man and bounced down the first base line, Jeter ran across the field from his position at shortstop, scooped up the ball and tossed it, backhanded, to Jorge Posada who tagged out Oakland’s Jason Giambi at the plate. The Yankees faced elimination in that game, and Giambi represented the game tying run. The Yankees would go on to win that game, as well as the series. Clutch.
2002 was business as usual for number 2. The Yankees made the playoffs, and he made the All-Star team. He set a career mark in stolen bases that year and also led the majors in stolen base percentage (91.4%). He was only caught stealing 3 times out of 35 attempts. He added in standard, Derek Jeter numbers: 18 home runs, 75 RBI, 124 runs scored and 191 hits while batting .297. However, the Yankees would lose in the postseason again, this time to the eventual World Series Champion Anaheim Angels in the ALDS.
On June 3, 2003 Yankees owner George Steinbrenner bestowed Jeter with the highest honor in Yankeeland. He named the 28 year-old shortstop the team’s captain. The Yankees had been without a captain since 1995, when Don Mattingly retired, which is a testament to just how serious management takes the title.
After missing 36 games with a dislocated shoulder he sustained on opening day, Jeter returned to form finishing third in the league in batting average and leading the Yankees to yet another postseason. He was stellar in the postseason, batting .314 with 10 runs scored over 17 games. Unfortunately, the Yankees would once again fall in the World Series, this time to the Florida Marlins, due in part to a crucial error made by Jeter himself in the decisive sixth game of the series.
That offseason the Yankees would reload in a major way, acquiring Alex Rodriguez in a blockbuster trade that sent budding star Alfonso Soriano to Texas. Rodriguez, a close friend of Jeter’s for years, was widely considered to be the best shortstop in the league and joined the team with two Gold Gloves (Jeter had none). Nonetheless, it was Rodriguez who would switch positions, moving to third base, while Jeter remained at shortstop.
From the outside looking in it was a bit of curious decision, but it made baseball sense. Rodriguez had the range to cover Jeter’s right side and allow him to cheat to his left. Fielding balls hit to his left side had been identified by scouts as a weakness. It was a seemingly win-win situation for all parties.
The move paid dividends too, as Jeter would go on to win his first Gold Glove award in 2004, presumably due in part to having A-Rod on his right side. Derek overcame a considerable slump at the start the season to finish with what had become his expected level of production, a .292 average, 23 home runs, 78 RBI, and 111 runs scored. This season also saw Jeter create another high profile signature moment, this time against rival Boston. On July 1, he made an over-the-shoulder catch, up the left field line, while running from his shortstop position. He propelled himself over the third-base side railing and first few rows of seats in the process, walking away with a bruised face and a cut chin. It was a visually stunning moment that was voted play of the year by fans at MLB.com.
Grace Under Pressure
The next four years would see more of the same from Jeter and the Yankees. His productivity remained high and the Yankees continued to win. They also continued to lose in the postseason. In most cities, merely making the playoffs is a big deal. In New York, though, we expect championships. Especially from the Yankees. With every postseason defeat the microscope zoomed in a little closer, looking to find that kink in the armor of Captain Yankee.
For his part Jeter would remain the model of consistency. He would win his second consecutive Gold Glove in 2005, also finishing second in the league in runs scored (122) and third in hits (202). In 2006, he recorded his 2000th career hit, the eighth Yankee to do so in franchise history. He once again finished close to the top of the league in average and runs scored. Considered by many to be the frontrunner for the league’s MVP award he would finish second in voting, while bringing home his third straight Gold Glove in addition to the Hank Aaron Award for superior offensive performance.
Things didn’t change much in 2007 and 2008. Jeter would rake in over 200 hits in both seasons (including his 400th career double, and 200th home run in 2008), a feat he also accomplished in 2006, making it three years in a row, and six times in his career. As had become standard fare, he was selected to the All-Star Game in both seasons, bringing his career total up to 9 at that point.
Return to Glory
Jeter returned to the leadoff spot in 2009, and turned in another gem of a season: 212 hits, 30 stolen bases (in 35 attempts), 18 home runs, 107 runs scored and a .334 average. He reached two huge career milestones during the season as well, first passing Luis Aparicio’s record of 2,674 hits as a shortstop, then becoming the Yankees’ all-time hits leader, his 2,722nd hit putting him ahead of Lou Gehrig.
The Yankees returned to the postseason after missing it for the first time in Jeter’s tenure in 2008, and the captain led the way. He hit .355 overall and .407 in the World Series as he and the Yankees defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in six games. It was his fifth World Series Championship and the teams’ first in close to a decade (too close if you ask some fans).
Closing it Out
Everyone knows that nothing lasts forever. Inevitably, Derek Jeter had to get old. The 2010 season was the first time the Captain began to show signs of age. In many regards 2010 was his worst season statistically, batting only .270 with a .340 OBP (On-Base Percentage), both career lows. Nevertheless he was once again selected to start at shortstop in the All-Star Game. He finished the second half of the season strong after making some adjustments at the plate with Yankees’ hitting coach Kevin Long. The Yankees returned to the ALCS, but were defeated by the Texas Rangers.
There usually aren’t too many firsts left in a player’s career after 15 seasons, but following the 2010 season, for the first time in his career, Derek Jeter became a free agent. He quickly found out that free agency wasn’t all about freedom and big contracts. At 36 years old, the shortstop appeared to be on the decline. Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus implied that Jeter was once a “good, not great” shortstop defensively, who had declined to become “below average”, to the point that he would probably need to change positions. A sentiment echoed by Yankees’ General Manager Brian Cashman, who acknowledged that the Captain might need to shift to the outfield.
Negotiations became tense as the Yankees’ told the shortstop to test the market and see his value, which upset Jeter, whose agent was quoted as saying he was “baffled” by the Yankees’ approach to the negotiations. In the end, the sides agreed on a three-year $51 million contract and it was back to business for the aging shortstop. He spent the offseason working with Kevin Long on his swing and entered the 2011 season hoping to return to form.
Unfortunately, those offseason adjustments didn’t produce the desired results and Jeter was left frustrated, batting only .242 in April of that year. With his early season struggles, the whispers of Jeter’s decline began to increase in volume. Despite his early season struggles, however, 2011 would prove to be another historic year for the shortstop. On May 28, he broke Ricky Henderson’s franchise record for stolen bases, recording his 327th. On July 9, he hit a home run off of Tampa Bay Rays ace David Price to record his 3000th career hit, becoming the only member of the 3000 hit club to record all of his hits as a Yankee. He was also the fourth youngest player to reach 3000 hits, joining Honus Wagner as the only player to reach the feat while still a regular shortstop. Citing stress from his highly publicized pursuit of 3000, and a desire to rest, Jeter skipped the All-Star Game.
After the break his historic season continued. Together, he and Jorge Posada, set the team record for most games played together as a duo, breaking the previous record held by Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazeri. He would also play in his 2,402nd game, surpassing Mickey Mantle for most career games played as a Yankee. More importantly, he was able to turn things around at the plate. He finished the season with a respectable 162 hits and a .297 average. This marked his 16th consecutive season of 150 or more hits, good enough for second on the all-time list. Jeter would later attribute the turnaround to work he did with his former Minor League coach, Gary Denbo while serving a stint on the DL.
The 2012 season began with the whispers of Jeter’s decline turning into full fledged conversation. Around the league, there was concern over his age, and what many saw as a significant decrease in fielding range. Jeter quickly quieted those conversations. He opened the season on a tear, hitting .411 through April 23, the exact opposite of a year prior. The resurgence had press and teammates alike abuzz about how youthful Jeter not only looked, but was playing. He made another All-Star Game and moved himself into fourth all-time on the All-Star Game batting average list(minimum of 12 plate appearances) with a 1-for-2 game that put his career average at .458.
He led the league in hits with 216, tying him with Hank Aaron for the MLB record for most consecutive seasons of 150 or more hits. In the process he recorded his 3,284th hit, passing Willie Mays and earning him a spot on the top ten all-time hits list. The success at the plate carried over into the postseason as Jeter hit .364 in the ALDS. Unfortunately, in game 1 of the ALCS against the Detroit Tigers, Jeter fractured his left ankle, ending his season.
On October 20, 2012 Jeter had surgery on the broken ankle. However, he suffered a crack in the same area during rehab, which forced the 38 year old to start the 2013 season on the DL. Sadly, despite valient efforts, the captain never really made it back for the 2013 season. Amidst a myriad of leg injuries including a calf strain and a strain of the quadricep, he was only able to play in 17 games, batting a lowly .190.
Jeter re-signed with the Yankees in November of 2013, the one-year $12 million contract assuring that the veteran would end his career in pinstripes. On February 12, Jeter exhibited his media savvy for what may have been the final time, announcing his intentions to retire on his Facebook page, deciding to skip the entire circus that was sure to ensue once the announcement had been made. Always a professional.
More to The Man
On the field Derek Jeter has had the type of career that all but assures him a first ballot induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Yet, it is what he has (and hasn’t) done, off the field that make him a nominee for the Hall of Fame of life, if ever such a thing were to exist. For close to two decades, he has been one of the best and most popular players in all of sports. In the free agency era it is a rarity to see an athlete play out an entire career with a single team, yet, come October, when the curtain finally closes on the career of Mr. November, he will have done just that. All the while doing things the right way.
Aside from the many awards he’s won for his play, he is also a two-time Lou Gehrig Memorial Award winner, a Roberto Clemente Award winner, and a Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award winner as well. All three awards reward sportsmanship, philanthropy and community involvement. He established the Turn 2 Foundation in 1996, a charitable organization that helps children and teenagers avoid drug and alcohol addiction, while rewarding high academic achievement. His community involvement hasn’t been limited to his work with his own foundation, however. Jeter has lent his time, energy and money to plenty of worthy causes throughout his career, often times donating anonymously.
Though he has protected his private life better than most, Jeter hasn’t always been immune to the gossip and rumors that go hand and hand with being a big star in a big city. His romantic liaisons have become the stuff of folklore. Afterall, you don’t remain one of the most eligible bachelors in the city for as long as Jeter has without assembling an impressive list of women you’ve dated. Most athletes, and celebrities in general, deal with tabloids speculating on who they’re seeing, except with Jeter it wasn’t speculation. He has aligned himself, and continues to align himself romantically, with members of the proverbial “A-list” since he entered the league. So much so that ESPN actually put together a full starting baseball lineup (DH included) of his most high profile ex-girlfriends. Amazingly, the list is anything but all-inclusive.
New York City isn’t a place for everybody. Historically athletes have crumbled when in one of the harshest media markets in sports. Mix in a unique breed of rabid, loyal fans, and it takes a very special person to succeed in the city. Jeter has done more than succeed; he’s thrived, becoming a leader in the locker room as well as the community, all the while never sacrificing his strong work ethic and intense will to succeed. He once famously said, “If you’re going to play at all, you’re out to win. Baseball, board games, playing Jeopardy!, I hate to lose”.
Throughout his career Derek Jeter has been a model of professionalism. He has handled himself like a complete gentleman on and off the field, which has done nothing but help his already immaculate public image. His media and public relations should be the subject of a course for all incoming rookies. In many respects, Derek Jeter is the code of conduct that they should all follow. Regardless to how his career concludes, he has cemented himself as a true legend. A baseball legend, a Yankee legend and a New York City legend.
Major League Baseball’s Commissioner, Bud Selig summed Jeter’s legacy up in three short sentences, perhaps better than anyone else could have: “In the 21-plus years in which I have served as commissioner, Major League Baseball has had no finer ambassador than Derek Jeter. Since his championship rookie season, Derek has represented all the best of the national pastime on and off the field. He is one of the most accomplished and memorable players of his—or any—era.”
Superstars come and go, and rosters turn over every year, but true icons live forever. It’s only a matter of time before Jeter is immortalized amongst the other greats in Yankees monument park. It will surely be a sad day for the game when he walks off the field for the last time, but Cooperstown is calling. I think the legends’ team is about ready to name a new captain.
Photo: Chris O’Meara/AP