In 1959, when I was ten years old, I went to my first game at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. the Yankees vs. the Baltimore Orioles. My first two memories are clear in my mind to this day. First, the grass was a lush green. I had only seen televised games on a black and white television, or played them on brown sandlots. But even more vivid was the announcement of the lineup by "The Voice of God", Bob Sheppard, the PA announcer from 1951 to 2007. "Batting fourth and playing centerfield, # 7, Mickey Mantle, #7."
Thanks to televised games on satellite TV and iPad, I estimate that I've seen Jeter play 1,500 of his 2,700+ games during his 20 year career. I've seen him play about 60 games in person, including six World Series games. So I consider myself a qualified "Jeter Expert."
On September 25, 2014, the recorded voice of the late Bob Sheppard announced the final at bat for Derek Jeter in Yankee Stadium. And to almost nobody's surprise, Derek hit a game winning single to the opposite field, true to his hitting style and his uncanny ability to rise to the situation.
Mickey was my boyhood baseball idol for his power, his speed and his determination to overcome injuries and illnesses. But he was far from an idol in his personal life. He mistreated his family, his devoted fans and his own body. He only became a true hero in his final days, when his efforts to support organ donations saved many lives. Old timers might say that Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig or Joe Dimaggio was the greatest Yankees ever, but Ruth certainly didn't live an exemplary life, Gehrig was reported to be a pretty nasty guy off the field, and Joe D probably was more famous for marrying Marilyn Monroe than for his baseball career.
Derek Jeter was born 15 years after I first heard Bob Sheppard's announcement at my first game at the Stadium. But he insisted that only Sheppard's voice would ever announce his at-bats there. This represents the word that has become his trademark - RESPECT. Derek has respected the history of the game; respected his teammates, managers and opponents; respected the tradition of playing hard in every situation; respected his role as captain, teaching through his good example; even respected the umpires, with the ability to argue without being ejected. More important, Jeter has respected his parents and his family, who have supported him throughout his career.
Modern day baseball statisticians like to downplay Derek's performance during his career. Many of his records are due to longevity and consistency, and some other players have better raw numbers for hitting and fielding. But I've never seen a player who I'd rather have batting for my team in a critical situation, or field a sharp ground ball when it really counted. Five World Series championships didn't happen by accident during his career.
Derek has respected his reputation. He is media savvy, with the ability to be interviewed thousands of times, without ever saying anything controversial or incendiary. The master of sports cliches. In the age of peformance enhancing drugs in baseball and other sports, and deplorable behavior by so many athletes, you'll never see Jeter in a negative TMZ report, or writing a profane Twitter comment about his opponents. It's clear that he's not only protecting his image, but that's who he really is. And that's especially hard playing in New York, media and tabloid capital of the world.
Even though he plays it down, Derek knows his place in the world, not only in sports, but in his obligation to pay his success forward. He started a charitable foundation that has benefited so many young people for years.
So.... is Derek Jeter the best Yankee ever? I don't really know. I'm positive that he's in the top five. But he is the best of his generation, and I don't believe that we'll ever see another like him in baseball, or in any other sport. I doubt that we'll ever see long careers with one team, because the best players have to move to other teams to earn bigger contracts. Most important, I doubt that we'll see anyone with his combination of skills, character and personality.
Farewell, Captain, # 2, and Thank You!