There’s the old Seinfeld cliche that people are simply “rooting for laundry” when they cheer for professional sports teams. That may be true, but even the most adamant of Mets fans would agree there’s something about Derek Jeter that transcends the pinstripes that he has donned for the better part of two decades.
That career now has an end in sight, as Jeter announced on Wednesday via his Facebook page that the 2014 season would be his last.
But what is that “something” that makes Jeter universally respected, if not beloved, all while playing for the “Evil Empire”?
It’s tough to explain.
He played his entire professional career with the New York Yankees, a team that shelled out $46 million for Kei Igawa in 2007, $66 million for A.J. Burnett in 2009, $275 million for Alex Rodriguez in 2008 and just signed Masahiro Tanaka to a $155 million contract. It’s a team that just give out money like it has a printing press in the equipment room. Which the Yankees actually might.
Derek Jeter certainly got his money as well. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Jeter has made the second-most money of any baseball player ever at just over $253 million to date, a figure that comes in only behind A-Rod. But something about Jeter was different. There was never any resentment for the contracts he signed. He played hard, at a high level, year-in and year-out, and delivered in the clutch. While only a select few teams would have given Rodriguez the money he got, any team in the bigs would have been happy to give Jeter every single dime he earned.
Are people jealous of the money he made? Well yeah, probably. But I’d venture to say the vast majority of baseball fans respect the way he went about earning it.
So then, what was it about his play that garnered such a revered level of respect?
He was never an MVP, but was named to the 13 All-Star teams. He has never hit more than 24 home runs in a season, but he’s averaged over 200 hits per year for his career. He was rarely a liability defensively, with five Gold Gloves to back that up, and even helped bring in a new breed of athletic shortstop, highlighted by his patented “Jumpman” throws (as seen below).
He was, and continues to be, a player that many people could relate to. He was born in New Jersey, raised in Michigan, and was by no means a hulking steroid man-beast that many other players of his era were. So while Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were busy captivating baseball fans in the Summer of 1998 with their legendary* home run race, could it be that it was Derek Jeter who emerged as the player that fans actually related to?
He began to accumulate accolades, sign endorsement deals, and date actresses and models, but his ego never changed. He could always be counted on to say the right things, do the right things, and above all, play the right way. Jeter handled both winning and losing with grace, despite playing in a media market where the spotlight was brightest. He was the shortstop for the New York Yankees, which is right up there with being quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys as one of the toughest positions in sports. As volatile teammates came and went, Jeter remained the steady, calming force within the Evil Empire.
But more than anything, he was defined by winning. As much as you didn’t want to see the Yankees’ lavish-spending model succeed, Jeter was drafted by the franchise and brought up through the minor leagues in the traditional way, and became the foundation for the team’s success.
From his very first season – in which he won both the Rookie of Year award and a World Series ring – people associated Jeter with winning. It was strange to see an October go bye without his No. 2 playing a prominent role. Five World Series rings later, the Yankees’ captain has left his mark not only in the Bronx, but on baseball history as well. He’ll get a well deserved farewell tour and then win or lose, ride off into the New York sunset.