Derek Jeter Was Great, Until He Wasn't

Derek Jeter on the on deck circle
Derek Jeter has defined the Yankees for nearly two decades. Mike Segar/Reuters

In 1995, I turned 10. For my birthday (September 20th), my mother took me and a few friends to see the New York Yankees host the Toronto Blue Jays. We went early, to see the teams take batting practice. We missed seeing the Yankees warm up, but as the Blue Jays were wrapping up, two Yankees rookies, who had been shagging fly balls, tucked their gloves under the arms and walked over to the railing for the seats nearest the field—one in left field, and one in right. They began to take items from the fans (balls, hats, programs) and returned them, graciously, signed. My mom pushed through the crowd with a ball we had caught earlier, yelling at the other autograph hounds that it was for her son's 10th birthday, and would they please let her through? She came back with a ball signed by outfield prospect Ruben Rivera. On the other side was infielder Derek Jeter. Both were young, with immense potential, up for a proverbial September cup of coffee; neither played that day.

Rivera flamed out, ending up best known for "the worst baserunning in the history of the game." Jeter, of course, became Derek Jeter.

Almost 20 years later, I went to see Jeter's penultimate game at the Stadium (not the one I loved as a child, but its shiny, chilly replacement), also around my birthday. This time, there was little else to see but the Captain: his image was splashed across pylons from the field level to the grandstand and on the $6 commemorative cups of soda; flags with his uniform #2 festooned the stadium in place of the regular standards demarking the combatant teams; a newly designed Jeter Shield of Honor was ubiquitous, painted on the field, sewn onto uniforms and hats, and stamped on every purchasable good in a mile radius.

Inside Yankee Stadium, Derek Jeter is a living god. Outside, though, he is a polarizing figure. As a young player, he was showered with accolades: Rookie of the Year, Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers, Hank Aarons, and more. According to Baseball Reference, his best regular season was in 1999, when he posted a Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of 8.0, but the 2001 season may have been his highwater mark in terms of indelible moments to be replayed on Yankees broadcasts for decades to come.

In the American League Division Series, there was "The Flip," where Jeter seemed to appear like an apparition outside the first base line, far from his normal position, just in time to field a horribly errant relay throw, and make a backhand toss to get Jeremy Giambi at home. And then he was crowned "Mr. November" for his game-winning home run in Game 4 of the World Series. He continued to excel for the next decade or so, consistently posting gaudy offensive numbers in a high-profile role at the top of the Yankees lineup.

As he aged, though, and advanced statistics became more a part of casual baseball conversation, there seemed to be a correction on Jeter's excellence. Mostly, it was about his defense, which the latest and greatest stats showed to be fairly horrific. (Jeter has a total of one season where he posted a positive Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved.) As Grantland's Jonah Keri recently pointed out, Baseball-Reference's Runs From Fielding data makes Jeter the worst defensive player (when compared to others at his position) in all of baseball history—and second place is not even close. There is no doubt that when Alex Rodriguez joined the team, Jeter should have moved to third base, and let the better fielder man the harder position—it would have helped both the Yankees, and Jeter's legacy.

The truth, though, is that defensive metrics remain inherently flawed. Whereas advanced offensive numbers seem to stay stable and then decline at a predictable rate year over year, the ways we measure defensive success pinballs through a player's career. This might be due to the inherent unpredictability of the game—but it might also be that we haven't figured out how to measure defense accurately yet. As R. J. Anderson reported for Newsweek, new tech and big data-gathering innovations in the game may be on the horizon to address these very concerns.

This leads to the bigger problem: today, advanced statistics have begun to be bandied about with as much disregard for nuance as the "basic" statistics of old. Whereas baseball writers used to live and die by batting average, runs batted in, and home runs, now it's WAR, WAR, WAR. Keith Olbermann's recent diatribe about Jeter's presumed place in baseball history, for example, was structured almost entirely around Jeter's failure to rank high in this category. (Baseball-Reference has him at #88 in all time WAR, sandwiched between luminaries like Larry Walker and Raffy Palmeiro.)

But WAR, of course, includes the defensive metrics that, basically, might not work. So there's a chance we have have over-corrected; Jeter may be better than we now think.

Anyway, that's for the pundits. There's also the off-the-field debate: is Jeter a great guy, the player everyone – teammate and opponent – roots for, or is he cold and calculating, a PR automaton that will cut loose anything perceived as a threat? There are certainly weird stories—the "morning-after" gift baskets come to mind—and the pettiness that characterized his relationship with Alex Rodriguez was perhaps the one inkling of emotion that leaked from the bulletproof persona he has cultivated like a prize rose from Day One.

His penultimate game in the Bronx was a day game, and there was an air of giddiness sweeping the crowd, mixed with the unique joy of playing hooky from your daily life, whether 16 or 60. Jeter did not take the field. He was pencilled in as the designated hitter, so there was no possibility of seeing the footwork that has by turns awed and enraged the press and the people.

From our seats in the top deck, directly behind home plate, you could not see the man of honor in the dugout. But there he was during the warm-ups in the bottom of the first, taking his place in the on-deck circle; the crowd vibrated already. And when he came to the plate, there was the syncopated chant, De-rek Je-ter (clap clap, clap-clap-clap), the one that usually comes from the right field bleachers once a game, but tonight would happen four times, for each at-bat.

He grounded to short, and was thrown out with ease, jogging back to the dugout, head hung low. But the fans wanted more, and they kept the chant up, then it ended and rose up instead as a roar. It was clear they wanted him to come out of the dugout and acknowledge their love and maybe even return it. The noise went on through the first pitch, and the second pitch of Chase Headley's at bat.

The crowd misunderstood. Jeter was not going to take a curtain call for a routine ground out. That's probably because, for Jeter, this isn't fun. If anything has been revealed in the outpouring of coverage in these last few weeks, it's that he is, basically, a baseball machine who happens to also be a man. The New York Times published an interactive piece earlier this month attempting to show, visually, how many times Jeter has swung a bat in his entire career. In it, they used the same GIF, repeated over and over. But as someone who has seen him swing hundreds of times in person and thousands of times more on television, I can tell you: for Jeter, 342,000 GIFs of the same swing probably looks a lot like 342,000 unique GIFS of specific swings. The man was consistent.

The game got away from the Yankees, who were losing 6-3 to the division-leading Baltimore Orioles, and Jeter, who was 0 for 2 with a strikeout by the 5th inning. The hope had been sucked out of the Stadium; the crowds had dispersed, and the sky became overcast. A chill was in the air. What began as a celebration morphed into a mourning. Why, I thought, was Jeter's number flying on white flags, stitched into armbands like a remembrance?

When he came up in the 8th, it looked as though the weight of his artificially prolonged farewell tour had actually set in. In the on-deck circle, Jeter sunk into a crouch, bat balanced on the ground in front of him, more burden than mythic tool of the trade. The thinned out crowd urged him on, trying, through force of will, to get one more act of heroism out of the player who has given them so many. With one strike, he checked his swing, too late: the ball dribbled out to the first baseman for an easy out.

Yankees fans are all Derek Jeter fans (except for a few cranks), and they are in a strange position. They are either derided as "what have you done for me latelys," bandwagon fans who care about nothing but winning at all costs—or they are mocked as hoodwinked homers, taken in by the Jeter mythology and unable to see past his obvious flaws.

But this felt like a near-tragic goodbye—and, despite the fact that there is one more home game, and another handful on the road, this was the real goodbye. The Yankees lost and were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, the part of the season when Jeter has long been said to shine brightest.

Next year offers some hope for his team. There's a pretty great chance that whoever takes over at shortstop in 2015 will be better than the Derek Jeter I saw the other day; it's equally probable that 2015's number 2 hitter will be far and away a better option than the 2014 model.