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Where Derek Jeter's Hall of Fame Career Lands in Yankees Lore

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Where Derek Jeter's Hall of Fame Career Lands in Yankees Lore
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

This day was always coming. It was looming somewhere out there, like a dark cloud or some other ominous cliché.

And now it's here.

I'll let Derek Jeter, the longtime shortstop of the New York Yankees, explain in his own words. Here's what he posted on Facebook on this day, Feb. 12, 2014:

I want to start by saying thank you. 

I know they say that when you dream you eventually wake up. Well, for some reason, I've never had to wake up. Not just because of my time as a New York Yankee but also because I am living my dream every single day.

Last year was a tough one for me. As I suffered through a bunch of injuries, I realized that some of the things that always came easily to me and were always fun had started to become a struggle. The one thing I always said to myself was that when baseball started to feel more like a job, it would be time to move forward.

So really it was months ago when I realized that this season would likely be my last. As I came to this conclusion and shared it with my friends and family, they all told me to hold off saying anything until I was absolutely 100% sure. 

And the thing is, I could not be more sure. I know it in my heart. The 2014 season will be my last year playing professional baseball.

Here are three reactions:

  1. Whoa.
  2. All whoas notwithstanding, this isn't an all-time shocker. Jeter will be 40 years old soon, and calling 2013 a "struggle" is a monumental understatement. The fractured left ankle he suffered in the 2012 postseason was slow to heal, and he was unable to stay healthy when he came back, playing in just 17 games.
  3. This calls for some perspective. Jeter has a significant place in Yankees lore, but, my goodness, where is that place? Where does he fit in the realm of the real Yankee Yankees?

It's a densely populated realm if you go by the numbers retired at Yankee Stadium, but you and I know better. We know that Jeter fits within the inner circle of the most legendary of legendary Yankees, where the guest list is much more exclusive.

WAR (wins above replacement player), as always, is a helpful measuring stick. This is how Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs stack up the six greatest Yankees ever:

The Yankee Six
Rank Baseball-Reference.com WAR FanGraphs WAR
1 Babe Ruth 142.8 Babe Ruth 149.9
2 Lou Gehrig 112.6 Lou Gehrig 116.3
3 Mickey Mantle 109.7 Mickey Mantle 112.3
4 Joe DiMaggio 78.3 Joe DiMaggio 83.1
5 Derek Jeter 71.5 Derek Jeter 73.8
6 Yogi Berra 59.4 Yogi Berra 63.8

Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs

You can throw Mariano Rivera, Whitey Ford and maybe Thurmon Munson into the mix as well, but it's damn hard to argue with those six as the expanded Yankee Mt. Rushmore. If we ever need to explain the Yankees to aliens from outer space, showing them portraits of those six would be a good way to start.

If it's just a matter of how good these six were, the WAR order works fine. If you want to go by sheer talent, you could rearrange it to be Mickey Mantle first, Babe Ruth second or whatever. 

But ordering these guys by Yankee-ness? That's tougher. That requires context.

Let's see. Ruth loses points for starting in Boston, but gains points for saving his greatest years for New York. He's also the man who turned the Yankees into the Yankees. Ruth led them to their first World Series victory in 1923. Since then, 26 more have followed.

Ah, but then there's Lou Gehrig. The Iron Horse obliterated baseballs and never missed a game. And though his career was cut short by a disease that would come to bear his name, he exited baseball wearing Yankee colors and proclaiming himself the "luckiest man on the face of the earth."

Then came Joe DiMaggio. He was as much a celebrity as he was a ballplayer, but my, what a ballplayer he was. He had the 56-game hitting streak and, of course, won nine World Series titles in 13 years. He might have won more had he not missed 1943-1945 for military service. 

DiMaggio also has this quote to forever endear him to the Yankee faithful: "I'd like to thank the good Lord for making me a Yankee."

Speaking of quotes, Yogi Berra came next. Arguably the cornerstone of the Yankee dynasty of the 1950s and 1960s, he won 10 World Series with the Yankees as a player. You also can't say "When you come to a fork in the road, take it" or "A nickel ain't worth a dime anymore" without knowing you're quoting a Yankee.

Then Mantle. He's the greatest switch-hitter of all time, and maybe the single most talented player in the history of the game. He won seven World Series, all while being the most beloved player of his era. Shoot, it's possible that no player at any time has ever been more beloved than Mantle was then.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

This brings us to Jeter. He was drafted to be the next Yankee legend in 1992, and that's what he became. He's missed out on the postseason just twice in 19 seasons. In those, he's won five World Series and racked up more hits than anybody in Yankees history, and the next person he offends will be the first.

There they all are on the table. From my perspective of the Yankee-ness of the particulars, I'd order them like this:

  1. Derek Jeter
  2. Babe Ruth
  3. Mickey Mantle
  4. Yogi Berra
  5. Lou Gehrig
  6. Joe DiMaggio

This isn't something that can be done objectively. It depends on whom you saw play and how you saw them play, as well as on the stories you've read and been told, and how those stories resonate. If your grandfather always said Ruth/Gehrig/DiMaggio/Berra/Mantle was the greatest Yankee, heck, maybe you figure who are you to argue. And how they fall after No. 1 probably doesn't matter so much as who's No. 1.

Your rankings might look different than mine. Maybe you're surprised I have Jeter up there at No. 1. But for me, that was actually the easy part. 

Michael Heiman/Getty Images

Jeter debuted on my eighth birthday in 1995. I'm almost 27 now. I honestly don't remember baseball without him. I only remember it with him, and I remember a lot.

I remember countless line-drive singles to right field. I remember countless clutch hits. I remember so many seemingly impossible jump throws. I remember all the wins. I remember the World Series. I remember Jeter, in varying degrees, being the face of each one.

And I remember often thinking, "Damn that man."

I wasn't a Yankees fan. I'm still not. When I was a kid, Jeter was the enemy. As an adult, I've often called him overrated. Despite always being there, that's what he gets for being a Yankee and for not being perfect.

But nobody—not me, not anyone—can say with a straight face that they hate Jeter. By virtue of his skill, composure and class, he's long been the ultimate "unhateable" player. That's not an easy thing for any player to be. It's a nigh impossible thing for a Yankee to be.

It is, with no hesitation whatsoever, that I say, yeah, Jeter's my Yankee. The Yankees are not and have never been my team, but even I get that the best Yankees are supposed to embody greatness. I've never seen anyone do the trick like Jeter.

If you're my age or younger, Jeter's probably your Yankee, too. And while many of you older folks out there are understandably going to have Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra or Mantle up first on your Yankee Mt. Rushmore, surely some of you favor Jeter. By Yankee standards, it's an honor he's earned.

And it's not over yet. The 2014 season awaits. Maybe Jeter can do one last thing to bolster his place in Yankee lore. It would surprise nobody if he did.

One thing's for sure now, though: When he's gone, we're all going to miss him.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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