Derek Jeter's Monotonous Greatness

As a kid, it was easy to root for the improbably perfect rookie. But as Jeter's mythical status faded, I learned to see Derek for Derek.

Derek Jeter is my favorite baseball player in the whole world—a distinction he has held for two decades, for straightforward reasons. Sports fandom everywhere is a kind of random social entrapment. Most of us feel bound to root for teams based on what city we are born into, or what jerseys our parents kept in the closet. I was born in Virginia, but my uncle, a New York Yankees evangelist, introduced me to pinstripes, and I was ensnared in a similar trap of randomness when a skinny, smiley rookie joined the clubhouse in 1996.

I was nine years old. His name was Derek. He even spelled it right. That would be the end of it.

Actually, this is the end of it. After his 20th season, Derek Jeter will stop playing professional baseball. Sometime this fall, he will walk off a dirt-and-grass diamond for the last time, trailed by an embarrassment of superlatives: the Yankees' all-time career leader in hits, games, and stolen bases; Major League Baseball's all-time leader in hits by a shortstop; a five-time World-Series Champion (more than any active player); and the only active member of the 3,000-hit club. With four more postseason games, he would become the first person in baseball history to play a full season in the playoffs, where he already owns the all-time record for (deep breath here) plate appearances, at-bats, hits, singles, doubles, triples, runs scored, and total bases.

Jeter's emergence marked the dawn after a dark (well, relatively dark) period for New York baseball. The Bronx had not celebrated a World Series championship since 1978. Seventeen years is an appropriate amount of time to wait for any normal sports fan. For Yankee fans, however—spoiled rotten by the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s—it felt, comparatively, like a lost century.

To me, with no institutional memory of the Yankees or anything really, Derek Jeter wasn't the answer to a prayer. I was a simple observer of baseball, and I had observed that rooting for Derek Jeter was easy, because winning came easy to him. In 1996, when I was 10, he won the World Series. Then he won again in 1998, 1999, and 2000, where he was named the World Series MVP. Jeter's fortune was magical: His first playoff home run didn't clear the wall, but rather ricocheted off the outstretched arm of a 12-year-old fan named Jeffrey Maier and into the stands. Some baseball fans took to calling him "Derek Cheater." Whatever, I thought, it was just more magic. Magicians have assistants, don't they?

For his first five years, Derek Jeter was a living testament to the fact that New York should always win, because it was a rule inscribed into the book of baseball, like four balls, three strikes, and counter-clockwise base-running.  I was 12 before I learned that "Root, root, root for the Yankees, if they don't win it's a shame" wasn't the original lyric. I was 19 before the Yankees hadn't played in consecutive World Series. Entitled doesn't begin to describe this sort of fandom. But falling in love with the Yankees during The Early Years of Derek Jeter was like learning to love Francis Ford Coppola movies in the early 1970s or Michael Jackson in the 1980s. It is a recipe for bliss, devotion, superiority, insecurity, confusion, and disillusionment, in more or less that order.

To begin with the bliss, it's hard to recall just how improbably perfect Jeter seemed in his first year: a talented, telegenic rookie with a natural, media-friendly nonchalance. His Sports Illustrated cover in 1996 began with a rapturous love note from author James Kaplan:

Derek Jeter is six feet three inches tall and 195 pounds, broad at the shoulders, narrow at the hips. Praxiteles would have been impressed. The smooth cafe-au-lait skin of his long, broad face is sunburned red. His kinky brown hair is cut rookie-cop style, buzzed around the sides, short on top. A heavy gold chain hangs on his thick suntanned neck ...

There’s a slight, innocent sneer in his white, lopsided smile, a draw-poker challenge to his long-lashed, green-eyed stare. It’s the look of a very young man regarding the beckoning world with caution and a certain ironic distance. It is also the look of a young man holding a handful of aces. In the cage … his lanky body jittering as he prepares to swing, he resembles a Thoroughbred colt in the starting gate, itching to get at it ...

Jeter sets as the pitcher throws, then takes a smooth whistling cut and cracks the ball high, high, out over the left-field fence, toward the weekday-morning traffic. He hits the ball out toward the cars three times in succession: three pitches, three homers. 

Jeter's legend was fully built by the time he was 28, but his last decade has not been legendary. It has been merely very good. After winning the pennant six times in Jeter's first eight years, the Yankees won the American League only once in the last 10 years—in 2009, their last World Series. Jeter, who had become synonymous with winning, instead became synonymous with steadiness. Here are his annual averages between 1996 and 2003, the golden years, and between 2004 and 2012 (the last year of which he led the league in hits at the age of 38).

1996-2003: BA: 318; Hits: 192; Runs 115
2004-2012: BA: .309; Hits: 195; Runs: 105

In the steroid era, home run totals skyrocketed, careers and reputations plummeted, and Derek Jeter just kept batting .300. It wasn't merely that his integrity was unimpeachable; it was also inscribed on his skinny arms. He was either a beacon of integrity in the storm, or the world's most incompetent user of steroids.

The Age of Steroids didn't diminish Jeter's legend, but the Age of Statistics has dinted it. The quant heads remaking our understanding of sports (and whose no-nonsense analysis I consistently endorse) have revealed that some of Jeter's mythical stature might be literally mythical. He has won five Gold Glove Awards, but the 2006 book The Fielding Bible called him "probably the most ineffective defensive player in the major leagues, at any." Most statisticians rate his fielding somewhere between below-average to worst-in-baseball. He led his team to four world championships in his first five years, but he wasn't even his team's best hitter (judging by an adjusted metric of on-base-percentage plus slugging) for four of those years. Jeter could be the most obvious lock for the Hall of Fame playing today, but he's never won an MVP Award. He is one of the greatest "pure" hitters of our time, but he has never won a batting title.

If Jeter is superlative, what is his quantitative superiority? Ironically, it's not his electricity. It's his constancy. Sports Illustrated likened Jeter to a body fit for a Greek sculpture or "a thoroughbred colt in the starting gate." But he has distinguished himself with something neither Greek heroes nor racehorses are renowned for: a longevity and reliability than verges on the monotonous. With 12 seasons batting over .300 and eight seasons with 200+ hits, Jeter ranks third in the all-important Wins Above Replacement metric among active players. The only men above him on that list—Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols —have both been considered the best hitters in the last 40 years, and the first one cheated. This is the definition of historically great company.

Last thing is, we have to talk about the first thing: Derek Jeter’s swing. It is not beautiful, not Griffey's golf stroke. It is an effortful, targeted slap. The "inside-out" swing, his most iconic, negotiates an inside fastball by keeping the wrists in, the head of the bat pulled parallel to the pitcher, and then snap, the baseball fires obliquely off the barrel of wood to the opposite field, and lands, often for a single. Derek Jeter is pretty, and this swing is not, and that's the charm.

It was easy to root for Jeter's improbably young legend. It is easy to bask in the moments of mythic drama, like his slapping a home run for his 3,000th hit. It's hard to feel the same outsized awe now that his Yankees have lost the last game of the year in 13 of the last 14 seasons. And that's okay. As one of my first childhood heroes, Jeter once seemed to absorb the charmed circumstances around him, like a sponge for luck. Now that charm, and its distracting glare, has faded, and it's easier to see Derek for Derek. It feels more honest in a way: to regard our idols for their qualities rather than their circumstances, to appreciate our heroes from the inside out.