Thursday, June 26, 2014

Top 10 Derek Jeter Moments

June 26, 1974, 40 years ago today: Charles and Dorothy Jeter discover a crashed Kryptonian spacecraft while driving through Pequannock, New Jersey. Inside, they find a baby boy. They take him home and raise him as their own. They name him Derek Sanderson Jeter.

It's hard to believe he's 40 now. Sure, his hairline has receded, and he's slowed down, and he's announced his retirement, effective at the end of the season.

But no player has so effectively stood as a symbol for the New York Yankees since Mickey Mantle -- possibly even since Joe DiMaggio. After all, unlike Mantle (and Babe Ruth), where embarrassing things in his private life were kept quiet, there's been no scandal with Jeter. And if you think the media wouldn't love it if there was one, well, you probably also believe that the media loves the Yankees, when, clearly, it prefers the Yankees' rivals.

Jeter made his major league debut on May 29, 1995, at the Kingdome, against the Seattle Mariners. Reflecting his publicly-stated desire to reach the Yankees while they still had a single-digit uniform number available, he wore Number 2 (and has never worn any other number), started at shortstop, and batted 9th. The Mariner starter that night was Rafael Carmona, and if you've never heard of him, don't worry about it: He, too, was a rookie, making his own big-league debut just 11 days earlier. He made a grand total of 81 major league appearances, all for the Mariners. Despite the M's making the Playoffs that year and in 1997, he made no postseason appearances for them, and made his last appearance just 4 years later, almost to the day. His opposition of Jeter that night is the only truly remarkable thing about him.

Jeter led off the top of the 3rd for his first at-bat, and flew out to right field. (The right fielder was Darren Bragg -- not the ex-Yankee Jay Buhner.) He led off the top of the 5th, and grounded to shortstop Felix Fermin -- the very Felix Fermin the Yankees wanted to trade Mariano Rivera to the Mariners for the following spring, as they didn't think Jeter was ready. (No, I'm not making that up. It could have been the worst trade of the era.) In the 6th, he hit a line shot to right that was caught by Bragg. In the 9th, he grounded to 2nd. The game went to extra innings, and he struck out to end the 11th. The Yankees lost in 12 innings, 8-7. Randy Velarde and Dion James homered for the Yankees, Rich Amaral for the Mariners. Jack McDowell started, and Scott Bankhead was our last and the losing pitcher.

Yes, Jeter went 0-for-5 in his big-league debut -- if 0-for-4 is "the horse collar" (or just "the collar"), then 0-for-5 is "the collar plus one." Only 18,948 fans saw it, having no idea they were watching the beginning of a legend. Mariano had made his big-league debut 6 days earlier. Andy Pettitte, the previous month. Jorge Posada, the following September. And that was the Core Four.

The next day, May 30, Jeter led off the top of the 5th, against Tim Belcher, and hit a ground ball through the hole for a single to left field, the first hit of a current total of 3,388.

Think about that total for a moment: Only 8 human beings who have ever lived have collected more major-league hits than Jeter: Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Tris Speaker, Cap Anson, Honus Wagner and Carl Yastrzemski. Jeter has a shot at surpassing the last 3.

Only 3 of them are still alive: Rose, Aaron and Yaz. The youngest of those, Rose, was born in 1941. So Derek Jeter has more hits than any living person under the age of 73. 

He has also reached the postseason more times than any other player, 17 times. He has played on 7 Pennant winners and 5 World Championships, easily more than any active player. David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox is the only other active player who even has 3 rings (or, should we say, 3* rings).

Jeter is about to be voted onto his 14th American League All-Star Team. He was the 1996 AL Rookie of the Year, and while he's never been awarded the Most Valuable Player, he's finished in the top 10 in the voting 8 times, and in the top 3 on 3 occasions (he was truly robbed in 1998 and 2009, and possibly in 2006). He's won 5 Gold Gloves.

Derek Jeter has surpassed Cal Ripken Jr. as the greatest shortstop in AL history, and is behind only Honus Wagner among all-time shortstops. No, Ernie Banks isn't ahead of him. Neither is Luke Appling, nor Luis Aparicio. Remember the debate about whether Nomar Garciaparra and Alex Rodriguez were better? Well, now, nobody remembers A-Rod as a shortstop anyway (and who would want to put him ahead of Jeter, knowing what we now know?), and Nomar's career flamed out due to injury and divaness.

Barring injury, on Thursday night, September 25, 2014, against the Baltimore Orioles, Derek Jeter will play his last regular-season game at Yankee Stadium II -- it may have been George Steinbrenner's desire for one last big lump of money before he died that led to its construction, and Derek certainly wouldn't want to be remembered as a reason for the destruction of the old Yankee Stadium, but he "built" the new one every bit as much as Babe Ruth built the old one. On Sunday afternoon, September 28, 2014, at Fenway Park, against the Red Sox, he will play his last regular-season game. Hopefully, there will be postseason games, which could, theoretically, extend his career by as much as another month.

Top 10 Derek Jeter Moments

These are in chronological order.

1. April 2, 1996, Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field), Cleveland: With Tony Fernandez hurt, and unable to make a deal with the Mariners for Felix Fermin (who ended up on the Yankees that season anyway, and washed out, and retired), the Yankees had to make Jeter their starting shortstop, not yet 22 years old.

How did he do in his debut as a starter? A lot better than he did in his debut as a major leaguer. He hit his 1st major league home run, and made a sensational catch of a popup, running with his back to the infield. The Yankees won, 7-1, and the magical '96 season was underway.

(Which Yankee seasons count as "magical"? I would offer the following: 1923, 1927, 1941, 1949, 1961, 1977, 1978, 1996 and 2009.)

2. October 9, 1996, Yankee Stadium I: Game 1 of the AL Championship Series. The Yankees trail the Orioles 4-3 in the bottom of the 8th. Armando Benitez is on the mound for the O's, a fearsome-looking reliever who does not yet have a reputation for blowing big games. He's about to get one.

Jeter takes a Benitez fastball, and drives it toward the right field fence. You know the rest: It was officially a home run, and Jeffrey Maier (who went on to be a Division III All-America baseball player in college) will forever be a part of baseball lore. Bernie Williams wins it with a home run in the 11th, 5-4.

3. October 6, 1998, Yankee Stadium I: Game 1 of the ALCS. Jeter makes the first of his signature defensive plays, snaring a Travis Fryman grounder backhanded, turning, leaping, and firing to 1st base for the out.

4. July 11, 2000, Turner Field, Atlanta: All-Star Game. The AL beats the National League, 6-3. With 3 hits and 2 RBIs, Jeter is named Most Valuable Player -- the first Yankee ever to receive the award.

"In due time," he said, "when I sit down and get a chance to reflect on it, then you realize how special it is. And I wasn't aware that no Yankee, no other Yankee, had won this award, and it's kind of hard to believe."

5. October 25, 2000, Shea Stadium: Game 4 of the World Series. Jeter leads off the game with a home run on the first pitch off Bobby Jones. The Yankees go on to win, 5-4. Jeter also homers in Game 5, and the Yankees win, 4-2, and take the Series. He becomes the 1st (and still only) player ever to be named MVP of the All-Star Game and the World Series in the same season.

6. October 13, 2001, Oakland Coliseum: Game 3 of the AL Division Series. The Yankees trail the Oakland Athletics 2 games to none, and have to win 3 straight (2 on the road) to survive. Mike Mussina is pitching brilliantly, but Terence Long hits a drive to right field in the bottom of the 7th. Shane Spencer throws home, but it's offline. Jeremy Giambi, Jason's even slower younger brother, is going to score easily...

Until Jeter comes out of nowhere, and, in one motion, grabs the ball with his bare hand, halfway between home plate and 1st base, and flips it to Posada covering the plate, and Posada makes a tag that should (but doesn't) get as much mention, and Jeremy is out!

This is the most-talked-about defensive play in baseball since Willie Mays' catch in the 1954 World Series (unless you count Bill Buckner's error in the 1986 World Series), and it helps preserve a 1-0 Yankee win. Two days later, in Game 5 at The Stadium, Jeter makes a running catch of a popup, and tumbles into the stands and hangs on. The Yankees win that series, and the Pennant.

7. October 31, 2001, Yankee Stadium I: Game 4 of the World Series. Due to the postponements from the 9/11 attacks, this was the first MLB game ever played on Halloween. A Tino Martinez home run off Byung-Hyun Kim sent this game against the Arizona Diamondbacks into extra innings. While Jeter came to bat in the bottom of the 10th, the clock struck midnight, and, for the 1st time ever, Major League Baseball was being played in the month of November.

At 12:03 AM, Kim sidearmed a pitch into Jeter's kitchen, and he cooked it. The ball screamed down the right-field line, and it was only at the last instant that it was clear that it would be a home run. A fan in the stands held up a sign that said "MR. NOVEMBER." Clearly, it was possible that someone would be a hero in this game after midnight, so the sign's existence wasn't all that odd. But it seemed right that it was Jeter who did it. Like the Ford commercials said: "Jetah? He's got an edge!"

8. July 1, 2004, Yankee Stadium I: Coming up on the 10th Anniversary of one of the most amazing regular-season games we'll ever see. The Yankees were going for a sweep of the Red Sox, and it went 13 innings. A big reason why came in the top of the 12th: Trot Nixon hit a popup that looked like it might go foul. Jeter ran for it, caught it just short of the wall, and, perhaps remembering the 2001 ALDS Game 5 play, chose not to fall into the stands again, or try to stop his momentum some other way, but jump, and, as broadcaster Michael Kay put it, "and flies into the stands!"

It sure looked like he was flying: He was almost perfectly horizontal when he went in. I remember seeing this on television and saying, "He's Superman! He's Superman!" Then I saw him get up, and I saw that he'd cut and bruised his face (cue the fangirls squealing in horror), and I said, "Uh-oh, he's bleeding. Maybe he's not Superman. Maybe he's Batman."

The Yankees won the game in the 13th, 5-4. Of all the amazing things about this game, the most amazing is not the Jeter play, or the fact that the winning hits were by utility players Miguel Cairo and John Flaherty (who has built a broadcasting career based on this one play, and would be totally forgotten otherwise). It's that the winning pitcher was Tanyon Sturtze! Easily the highlight of his awful career.

9. September 21, 2008, Yankee Stadium I: The last game at the old ballyard. Although Jeter didn't get a hit, his postgame speech showed why he's been the Captain since 2003:

"For all of us up here, it's a huge honor to put this uniform on every day and come out here and play. And every member of this organization, past and present, has been calling this place home for 85 years.

"There's a lot of tradition, a lot of history, and a lot of memories. Now, the great thing about memories is you're able to pass it along from generation to generation. And although things are going to change next year, we're going to move across the street, there are a few things with the New York Yankees that never change -- it's pride, it's tradition, and, most of all, we have the greatest fans in the world.

"We're relying on you to take the memories from this stadium and add them to the new memories that come to the new Yankee Stadium, and continue to pass them on from generation to generation. On behalf of this entire organization, we want to take this moment to salute you, the greatest fans in the world."

Then he led what English soccer fans call a "lap of honour" around the field, saluting the fans. The next year, the new Stadium opened, and Jeter put together an MVP-worthy season, and the Yankees won their 27th World Championship. Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year.

10. July 9, 2011, Yankee Stadium II: Jeter goes 5-for-5 with 2 RBIs against the Tampa Bay Rays. The 3rd hit was Number 3,000 for his career, a drive to left field off David Price, for a home run. Only 1 other player has ever hit a home run for his 3,000th hit, Wade Boggs. The Yankees won, 5-4. (That does seem to be a legendary score in Yankee history. It was also the score of the famed 1949 Pennant clincher, and the Bucky Dent Game in 1978.)

 There: A Top 10 Moments in honor of Derek Jeter's 40th Birthday, and I didn't mention his Seinfeld appearance, and only hinted at his commercials.

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