In our nonstop, stats-driven world — where metrics seem to dominate everything and data appears to decide everything important — Jeter’s pending retirement has led to the inevitable comparisons between his lifetime numbers and other great players who hung 'em up. The contrarian personalities among us have already started the Jeter image deflation machine. In their sad rush to the hard, flat comfort of numbers, they’ve missed much of the point — of baseball, and Derek Jeter, and us, and why the Captain matters to us.
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Leave it to that walking calculator Keith Olbermann, host of ESPN’s “Olbermann,” to get that point across. All season long, in what we’ve known for months would be Jeter’s final season, Olbermann has conducted his own farewell tour for Jeter, letting his viewers know at every opportunity just how good Jeter was not.
It’s been happening all year, on and off, Olbermann taking opportunities to push back on what he see as a valedictory mythology taking shape in Jeter’s twilight, and to rip the praises from fans and other teams — running down Jeter as if all the tributes coming his way were somehow Jeter’s idea. Olbermann really let the mud fly on Tuesday night: “"Contrary to what you have heard, Derek Jeter is not the greatest person in human history. He did not invent baseball, he did not discover electricity, he is not the greatest shortstop who ever lived. And among all the terrific players in the history of the New York Yankees he is not, by any measure, number one.”
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WHAT FOLLOWED was a crash course in how to gauge the cost of everything and the value of nothing. With his customary snark and bite, Olbermann recited the Baseball-Reference Guide chapter-and-verse comparisons that proved Jeter was middlebrow at best. He wasn’t fit to tie Ozzie Smith’s Nikes, he never won an MVP accolade, he never led the league in homers or RBIs; he was the team captain when the Yankees suffered two American League Championship Series defeats and five American League division losses; he was the team leader when the Yankees suffered the defeat that still stings in Yankee fans’ hearts: the loss of the American League Championship Series to the Red Sox in 2004, when the Yankees blew a 3-0 ALCS series lead.
Olbermann had company. Ted Berg at USA Today started back in February. “Jeter’s offensive game is driven by singles and marked by perennially high batting averages. He hits some homers, but his relative lack of power means he has only cracked the Top 10 in AL OPS (on-base plus slugging) once in his career.”
Jason Kiedel at CBS2 New York said: “While Jeter is a first-ballot icon whose plaque in Cooperstown and acreage in Monument Park are assured, he was never the best player in the sport, is far from the best player in Yankees history and wasn’t always the best player on his own team.”
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Right, Jason. Let’s pay that proper respect to endurance and longevity — like we did when Baltimore Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr. was rightly celebrated for playing in 2,632 consecutive straight games. In a time when players move from team to team with jarring irregularity, never around long enough to be a fan favorite, Jeter stayed put with the Yankees, a team known for being demanding in a city that’s never anything but demanding.
Since he debuted in May 1995 with the Yankees — the only team he’d ever play for — Jeter has 3,463 hits (not counting what happens today), five World Series championships, and five Gold Gloves. He was named an All-Star 14 times, and he’s No. 6 all-time in hits (he tied Honus Wagner back in August). That kind of stability with any one team is admirable; to do that with the Yankees, in the white-hot glare of the most irascible fans and media market in the country, is not much short of a miracle.
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KIEDEL GOES on to mention something else. Something important: “The most important point that Olbermann missed — and it must be an intentional omission, because he’s too savvy to miss something so obvious — is that Jeter, unlike 80 percent of his peers, did not take steroids.
“So it’s not fair to just belch the bromides about power numbers without acknowledging that he is one of the few who did it fairly. Look at Jeter’s physique. He never became Brady Anderson, never gained or lost 30 pounds of muscle in one offseason. His body never morphed into the cartoonish contours of Bonds, McGwire, Sosa or A-Rod.
“And that’s an essential distinction. Jeter played old-school baseball by the original rules. ... He is the embodiment of the cliché — doing it the right way.”
And he never said he was. He never even pretended he was. Day to day over 20 seasons, Derek Jeter was nothing more or less than the very best Derek Jeter he could be. Many days that was stellar. Many other days, well, it was not. Color Jeets human.
Years ago, in the Ken Burns “Baseball” series, the legendary sportswriter Roger Angell observed that “there’s more Met than Yankee in all of us.” Sooner or later, that has to be as true for an actual New York Yankee as it is for anyone else.
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Olbermann and others are so overly focused on the data that defines the game that they miss the magic that inspires the game, the magic that makes baseball more than punching up an equation on a calculator or conjuring an Excel spreadsheet, or anything else you do with numbers.