Once upon a time, there were three young shortstops.
They arrived in the majors nearly at the same time, completely different in style and skills, but each carrying the promise of greatness. Nomar Garciaparra, with the Red Sox, was the flashy and charismatic one. Alex Rodriquez was the youngest, and held the most potential. Derek Jeter, of the New York Yankees, was a finished player from the moment he stepped on a major league field: poised, purposeful, and a winner.
While once it seemed certain that all three would meet at the Hall of Fame, it was not to be. Garciaparra won two batting titles, but his aggressive moves and spidery form made him injury prone. His reign as an elite shortstop ended prematurely, and so did his career. Rodriquez, as he matured, went from The Kid to A-Rod to A-Fraud, his reputation and life scarred by controversies, illegal steroids, lies and the habits of a sociopath. He sat out this season, at a time in his career when he had been expected (and paid) to be chasing the all-time home run record, with a humiliating suspension. He is the most unpopular player in baseball, and one of the most reviled of all time.
So then there was one shortstop, Jeter, and his life on and off the baseball field has been extraordinary enough to make up for the disappointments left us by his former shortstop colleagues. Last night, at the age of 40, he played his final home game at the position for the Yankees. His career statistics show no batting or home run titles, it is true, but shine brilliantly nonetheless: a .309 lifetime average, 3461 hits (3000 makes a player a lock for the Hall of Fame even if he doesn’t play the most difficult position on the field, as Jeter has ), just short of 2000 runs scored (10th all-time), twelve All-Star games, five Golden Gloves (as the American League’s best fielding shortstop), five Silver Sluggers (as the best hitter at his position), and most of all, seven World Series, five of them on World Champions.
Apart from the stats, awards and titles, Jeter was just as exemplary. He played in an era when it is impossible to hide as a celebrity: if you are a jerk, everyone will know it. He wasn’t a jerk. He was, in fact, the personification of the perfect sports hero. Jeter has been a leader and teacher by example to his team mates and his admirers, though his one-time friend, Rodriguez, would not absorb the lessons. He has had no personal drama, no tawdry sexual episodes, no bastard children. He was never arrested or suspected of using drugs, performance-enhancing or recreational. There were no DUI charges or petulant interviews. Derek Jeter never had to ask “Do you know who I am?” because he never acted as if he was special, because he made himself special by never acting that way, and because everyone did know who he was. In every way imaginable, from his public comportment to his ability to rise to the occasion under the pressure of a national audience, a rich contract and the hopes of millions, Derek Jeter has embodied the ideal of the athletic hero. Continue reading