- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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So Derek Jeter ain't what he used to be. What athlete at 37 is? For the past few years some of Jeter's big league peers have continually voted him among baseball's most overrated players in Sports Illustrated's annual poll -- something they won't say to his face. But to read back over a ton of Jeter stories as he nears 3,000 hits is to be struck by how the details of how good Jeter was are forgotten.
The contention that Jeter has been very, very good has been repeated so much as accepted wisdom, it's as if that has created this big contourless slab called Jeter's Great Career, a notion that has come under increasing attack as he's slipped a bit with age.
With Jeter on the threshold of a historic milestone only 27 other big leaguers have reached, this would be a good time to revisit the easily forgotten particulars of how Jeter got here. And why he's headed to the Hall of Fame ...
First sign Jeter might have been destined for greatness? He shares a birthday (June 26) with Abner Doubleday, the purported inventor of baseball.
Destiny's child fact No. 2: Forget Babe Ruth, Jeter called his shot way back in grade school. A lot of kids say they want to grow up to play major league baseball. But Jeter, who was born in New Jersey but moved with his parents to Kalamazoo, Mich., when he was 4, told his family in the second or third grade that he was going to grow up to be the shortstop of the Yankees.
Dick Groch, take a bow: The day the Yankees' front office gathered to talk about using the sixth overall pick in the 1992 draft, there was a lively debate when Jeter's name came up as a possibility. "Jeter? Isn't he going to the University of Michigan?" Yanks scouting director Bill Livesey asked. Groch, who had scouted Jeter extensively and advocated drafting him, shot back: "The only place he's going is to Cooperstown."
Hal Newhouser and George Steinbrenner, you deserve a hand, too: Newhouser, a Houston Astros scout, was so convinced that Jeter would drive a winning team he quit -- just up and quit the game for good! -- when the Astros passed on Jeter and chose Cal State Fullerton outfielder Phil Nevin with the No. 1 pick.
Steinbrenner was famously impatient, but after wondering with a week left in spring training if the 1996 Yanks shouldn't trade for a more established shortstop, Steinbrenner did an about-face just weeks into Jeter's rookie season, saying, "Every year you look for Derek Jeter to stumble, and he just doesn't. ... We sent him to Double-A, and he dominated there. At Columbus it was the same thing. I'm telling you, he could be one of the special ones."
Still, there were some hairy moments: Jeter had never spent a night away from home without his family before he arrived in Tampa for rookie ball. He later admitted, "I cried every night." He hit only .210 there. "It was the first time in playing baseball that I struggled," he said. He made 56 errors in his first season at Class A. But Jeter's contract stipulated he got to go to the major league camp for spring training in his second pro season. As he told Men's Health magazine: "I was only there two weeks, but I got an opportunity to see these players. And that's when I said to myself, 'It's not that they're throwing 100 miles an hour faster, or hitting 400 feet longer. They're just doing things more consistently.' And then I thought, 'Well, I can do some of those things. Not as consistently, but I'm capable of doing it.' That was the defining moment that helped turn my career around."
Not that he took anything for granted: Many people remember that Jeter's first year in the big leagues was also Alex Rodriguez's first full season in Seattle, and they sparked talk about how a golden era for shortstops was underway. But what you may not know is during that 1996 campaign Jeter said he and A-Rod talked all the time, "Especially early in the season, [because] we both knew if we didn't get off to good start we might get shipped out."
Sounds funny now, right? Shipped back to the minors? A-Rod was the runner-up for the MVP award that season and Jeter was AL Rookie of the Year, earned his first World Series ring and hit .361 in the playoffs.
It was the start of a run that may not be matched: That '96 Yanks club began a skein of winning 14 straight World Series games -- a mark that former Mets manager Bobby Valentine has predicted will stand longer than Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.
Jeter on pressure: "The bigger the situation, the more the game speeds up. That's all mental. It messes people up. You think, 'I've got to do this, I've got to do that' when in reality all you have to do is the same thing you've always been doing. Slow it down. Realize you've been in this situation before. You've been successful in this situation before. Be calm. The more you can do that, the more pressure you take off yourself and the easier it is to perform."
Jeter on playing well in the playoffs: "I try not to change anything in the postseason. I don't like to say you focus more in the postseason, because that sounds like you're focusing less during the season. But in the postseason you are more focused. You can't help it. Every pitch, every grounder, every inning means more."
So he's Joe Cool, we get it -- but this is ridiculous: In the on-deck circle, Jeter has been known to chat with fans, casually asking things like, "What do you think he's going to throw me here?"
Where does all this come from? "You've got to know my family," Jeter often says.
Think of them as the Huxtables of baseball: "My upbringing was like 'The Cosby Show,'" Jeter once put it. "We had fun, always did a lot of things together. My parents were involved in everything my sister and I did." Jeter's father, Charles, is the son of a single mother from Alabama. He played shortstop at Fisk University and he later got a Ph.D. in sociology and became a substance abuse counselor. Jeter's mother, Dorothy, is the daughter of a New Jersey handyman. Before every school year Charles and Dorothy Jeter required Derek and his younger sister Sharlee to sign a handwritten contract that spelled out things such as their study habits, expected grades, early curfew times and rules regarding drugs and alcohol use (none).
Derek remembered: "We weren't allowed to use the word can't -- 'I can't do this, can't do that.' My mom would say, 'What? No.' She's always positive."
So he's got a great attitude. But maybe some numbers would impress you more: In addition to being a big winner, a big-picture look at Jeter's personal stats combat the idea he's been overrated as a player:
Through 2010, his 15th full season, Jeter's rank among his AL peers included: 11-time top 10 AL in hits; 10-time top 10 AL in runs scored; nine-time top 10 AL in batting average; one-time top 10 AL in total bases (1999); eight-time top 10 in AL MVP voting; five times among the AL top 10 hitters; six-time top 10 AL in times on base. Jeter led the AL in runs scored in 1998 and hits in 1999.
On Sept. 11, 2009, Jeter became the Yankees' all-time hits leader, surpassing Lou Gehrig with his 2,722nd hit. On Aug. 16, 2009, Jeter recorded his 2,674th hit, passing Luis Aparicio for hits by a shortstop in major league history. On May 28, 2011, Jeter stole his 327th base, breaking Rickey Henderson's Yankees record for steals. Some sabermatricians rate him one of the three most valuable offensive shortstops in history, along with Honus Wagner and Cal Ripken Jr.
Only three players had more hits prior to turning 37 than Jeter's 2,994. They were Ty Cobb (3,455), Hank Aaron (3,110) and Robin Yount (3,006).
Oh, by the way ... Jeter is 18 hits ahead of where Pete Rose, the all-time hits king, was when he turned 37. Rose celebrated his 37th birthday with a total of 2,976 career hits.
For a pitcher, all this consistency created a dilemma: Veteran reliever Jesse Orosco once tried to describe what made it so hard to face Jeter in his prime: "You can throw him inside as much as you want, and he can still fist the ball off. You can throw the ball low and away, and he can hit with power the other way. We have pitchers' meetings, and he's one of those guys where you just stay on the subject for a while. What do you do?"
There's the anecdotal evidence, too: We haven't even mentioned The Maier home run, which was the turning point of Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS against Baltimore, The Flip (Jeter's series-saving scoop and lateral to Jorge Posada in the 2001 first-round playoffs to nail Oakland's Jeremy Giambi at the plate), or The Dive on July 1, 2004, at Yankee Stadium, top of the 12th. A game against the Red Sox was tied at 3 since the seventh inning when Boston's Trot Nixon lofted a pitch into shallow left field with runners on second and third and two outs. Jeter caught the ball on a dead sprint -- saving two runs -- then hit the railing and pinwheeled into the stands, bloodying his face. The Yankees won. Jeter made a trip to the hospital and wedged another bookmark into his long career.
Still need more perspective? How about Jeter's career start vs. Joe DiMaggio's: Jeter's age is showing. But the thunderclap start to his career is what cemented his greatness. And as SI's Tom Verducci first showed, the same was true of DiMaggio:
The New York teams from 1936 to '41, DiMaggio's first six seasons in the majors, won 598 games, or about 100 a year, and failed to win the World Series only once. In Jeter's first five years, the Yankees won 487 games, approaching 100 a year, and failed to win the World Series only once. Over those five postseasons, Jeter's teams played .754 baseball, going 46-15. Only one other team in history besides DiMaggio's Yankees (who won consecutive World Series from 1936 to '39) and Jeter's Yankees has won as many titles in a five-year span. That was the 1949 to '53 Yankees, who did it while the torch passed from DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle in '51.
But that's not all: In regular-season and World Series play, DiMaggio scored 625 runs through his fifth full season. Jeter scored 623. DiMaggio had 994 hits. Jeter had 1,034. DiMaggio played in 19 World Series games over his first five seasons; his Yankees went 16-3. Jeter played in 19 World Series games, too; his Yankees went 16-3.
Jeter hit for a higher World Series batting average (.342) than did DiMaggio (.304), while producing more of New York's offense than DiMaggio: From 1936 to '39, DiMaggio scored or drove in 21 of the Yankees' 113 runs in the World Series, or 19 percent; from 1996 through 2000, Jeter was responsible for 22 of New York's 85 Series runs, or 26 percent.
Through five seasons, their ring count was even.
Still, some things never change: A 1997 major league scouting report on Jeter in his sophomore season (in which he committed just nine errors) read: "Not polished defensively. Needs to improve his range moving to his left."
Last season when Jeter won the Gold Glove -- his fifth -- one blogger from the "Jeter Stinks Defensively" Wing wrote, "My head just exploded."
Not that Jeter cares: "Stats, stats, stats," Jeter says with some amusement. "You can't quantify everything a player does to win games."
So what does get a rise out of Jeter? Winning, of course. The Yankees have been to the playoffs 14 of Jeter's full 15 seasons and averaged a World Series win every three years. Not bad.
Disrespect bugs Jeter, too: After an unnamed Yankees exec told Jeter to drink the "reality potion" during contract talks last winter and general manager Brian Cashman suggested he "shop around," Jeter said he could not tell a lie: "I was angry about it." More recently, when asked this past weekend if it would be hard for the Yanks to work him back into the lineup with Eduardo Nunez playing so well in 17 games as his replacement, Jeter said nope, it shouldn't be hard at all.
Jeter was blunt after the fact about beating the Mets in the 2000 Subway World Series as well: "Oh, man. If we'd lost this, I was moving out of town. Gone!" Jeter said. "We had a lot to lose. I'm serious. I would have moved right out of the city if we'd lost. You could have taken our three rings and thrown them out the window, as far as Yankees fans were concerned. I'm glad I played in a Subway Series. But maybe once is enough."
Sounds nerve-wracking. So how did he play? Terrific. Jeter had at least one crucial hit or play in each of the Yankees' four wins to add the World Series MVP award to his All-Star Game MVP trophy.
Still think Jeter is overrated? Try this sampling of what Jeter's contemporaries have said over the years: "He's the best player I've ever played with, and I think a lot of people in this clubhouse are going to say that before he's done. What sets him apart is the number of ways he can affect a game." -- Yankees right fielder Paul O'Neill, 2001.
"In big games, the action slows down for him where it speeds up for others. I've told him, 'I'll trade my past for your future.'" -- Reggie Jackson, the original Mr. October.
"Everything he does has such a grace about it. Maybe because of Jeter, the Yankees know how to win. It's not an act. ... It's similar to what DiMaggio was in his era." -- Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, 2009.
"As someone who's wallowed in it, 'foot-in-mouthed' it hundreds of times, said dumb things and backed up dumber ones, [Jeter] is refreshing," Curt Schilling wrote in his blog after Jeter broke Gehrig's franchise hits record against the Orioles. "He's shown up, played and turned in a first-ballot Hall of Fame career in the hardest environment in sports to do any/all of the above. ... I know competing against that guy, for the decade or so we matched up, was what made the major leagues the major leagues for someone like me."
"When I look at him, I see a guy who's got his act together, a guy who is a winner, who does everything the right way and deserves everything that he gets." -- Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, 2009.
"I've told him just enjoy the process [of reaching 3,000 hits] because you only get to do it once." -- Yanks manager Joe Girardi.
JETER on JETER:
He's gratified if other people think he's played the game right: "You're a person a lot longer before and after you're a professional athlete. ... Your image isn't your character. Character is what you are as a person. That's what I worry about," Jeter once said.
He's happy he played in New York: "This is the greatest city in the world. You always hear players say, 'I'd never play in New York.' I don't understand why you'd say that -- unless you're afraid to fail."
Jeter on his career: "You talk about living a dream or someone living a dream -- if I went back 30 years ago and someone told me, 'Sit down and write out what your dream would be to do,' I'd be sitting right here."
Sources: ESPN, Elias Sports Bureau, Yankees media guide, Sports Illustrated (special nod to Tom Verducci and Michael Silver), Wikipedia, Men's Health and GQ magazines.
It's time to revisit the easily forgotten particulars of how Derek Jeter got here.