Stories of Derek Jeter's Greatness from All Corners of Captain Clutch's Career

Bob KlapischFeatured Columnist IJanuary 21, 2020

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 14: Former New York Yankees great, Derek Jeter stands in front of his plaque during a pregame ceremony honoring Jeter and retiring his number 2 at Yankee Stadium on May 14, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Let's face it, after a suffocating week of Astros-gate, we all need to fill our lungs with controversy-free fresh air. What better way to reacquaint with baseball's better angels than a discussion of the Hall of Fame and the one player everyone can rally around: Derek Jeter.

After receiving 396 of a possible 397 votes, the former New York Yankees captain was officially elected Tuesday, though he was one vote shy of another clean sweep for the Bombers. In 2019, Mariano Rivera became the first player to receive 100 percent support from the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

Then, as now, there's not much room for argument.

Of course, it's not a crime to dissent. That's the beauty of judging Cooperstown candidates: Every election cycle is good for at least one in-your-grill argument. The hot-take debates have historically kept baseball relevant in January. That's changed this year, but for the wrong reasons. Sign-stealing scandals aside, though, a Cooperstown argument is a great way to rev up your baseball metabolism just in time for pitchers and catchers to report.

Except, there's little ammo for the one voter who left out Jeter.

There are a million reasons to be all-in, starting with the 3,465 hits, sixth all-time. There are five championships rings that include a .321 career average in World Series play. His 3,371 hits as a shortstop are a record for infielders, underwritten by eight 200-hit seasons, and he hit .300 or better in 12 seasons.

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We could go on, but much of distinguished Jeter can't be found in a sabermetric spreadsheet: leadership, maturity, grace under pressure. Jeter wasn't just the face of the Joe Torre-era Yankees; he was their surrogate manager in charge of the clubhouse.

To better explain, we consulted three Jeter experts. One was a teammate (Paul O'Neill), one managed against him (Buck Showalter), and the other works for him today (Don Mattingly). Different perspectives, but unanimous in their assessment: Jeter lived up to his billing.


Paul O'Neill

In comparison to Jeter, the right fielder's engine always ran close to the red line. O'Neill was nicknamed the Warrior during his years as a Yankee (1993-2001) and not just because he was such a fierce competitor. O'Neill never met a called strike he agreed with, never made an out he credited to the pitcher.

Instead, as a perfectionist, O'Neill would take his frustrations out on the dugout water cooler, smashing it with the same bat speed that produced seven .300 seasons and the American League batting title in 1994.

So who better than O'Neill to appreciate Jeter's impenetrable wall of calm?

"The amazing thing about Derek was that he was never nervous," O'Neill said to Bleacher Report.

"I mean, lots of guys pretend they've got it under control, especially during the playoffs. Some guys are pretty good at acting that way. But with Derek, I always believed it was genuine. Nothing got to him, no matter what the situation."

O'Neill offered a second, salient point about Jeter's focus: At the height of his fame, the Captain was arguably the most sought-after athlete in New York, whether it was for TV or print interviews, public appearances or charity work.

It takes extraordinary bandwidth to survive that. Some can handle the scrutiny in the Big Apple. Many cannot (think: Randy Johnson). But Jeter had a unique ability to turn into a terminator the moment he stepped in the clubhouse.

"After 4 o'clock, he was all baseball. Nothing else mattered," O'Neill said. "That's the kind of thing you notice as a teammate. Derek never had to say anything to us, but it was his way of letting everyone know: 'This comes first.'"


Buck Showalter

The former Yankees manager watched Jeter blossom in his formative years in the minor leagues and occupied the same dugout for brief stretches in the 1995 season, Showalter's last in New York.

Jeter was a September call-up that year (after making his debut in May), playing only two games as the Yankees were fighting for the wild-card spot with the Seattle Mariners, California Angels and Texas Rangers. Showalter instructed the then-21-year-old rookie, "You're not going to play much, but if I hear you're running around New York, I'll send you right back to the instructional league."

Showalter laughed recalling Jeter's reaction. "Skip, I haven't even left the hotel," Jeter said. Years later, Showalter said, "I believed Derek, too."

The two had a more profound connection in 2014 as Jeter was stepping to the plate for his final at-bat at Yankee Stadium. By then, Showalter had long since left the Yankees family and was managing the Orioles.

His appreciation for the Captain had grown over time; he was unashamed to say so, even to the young Orioles. So when Jeter singled to right in his final Yankee Stadium at-bat Sept. 25propelling the Yankees to an emotional walk-off victoryShowalter wasn't surprised his players hung around to take in the postgame ovation.

"There was such a deep respect in our dugout for Derek," Showalter said. "To me, it was fitting that he ended it on not a home run or flashy defensive play but ... punching a one-out hit to the opposite field. That was him; that was Derek.

"In a world where everyone was trying to hit the ball out of the park, Derek stayed true to his game. That's why I respected him so much."


Don Mattingly

The sit-down took place late in 2017, not long after Jeter and his business partners assumed ownership of the Miami Marlins. That was day one of what could've been an awkward situation: Jeter had just become Mattingly's boss.

It might've been a smoother transition in any franchise: new owner meets incumbent manager; the parties shake hands and vow to move forward. But Jeter and Mattingly were equals by a much different metric: both were former Yankees captains, both were the most popular players of their respective eras.

Mattingly could've bristled at the idea of being Jeter's subordinate, but Donnie Baseball was never wired that way. Instead, he broke the ice with Jeter with a pledge of allegiance.

"I said: 'Derek, we've been friends for a long time; you're not going to have any problems with me. Do what you have to do,'" Mattingly said, recalling the conversation. "I didn't want him to be uncomfortable with me. He was the boss, and I was OK with that."

The Marlins have struggled under Mattingly and have gotten worse in Jeter's first two years as owner. There's been talk of Jeter eventually finding a new manager, though Mattingly said their relationship remains strong. In fact, Mattingly noted Jeter's approach as an owner is remarkably similar to his focus as a player in the Bronx.

"Derek has been criticized by some people, but he never let that stuff bother him in the past," Mattingly said. "He knows what he wants to do and hasn't wavered. That's pure Derek—totally focused. That's why we're going to be a good team and why it's happening quickly. It's because of Derek."

Great as his career was, Jeter doesn't necessarily place on the list of the five greatest Yankees. He doesn't come before Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra used to tease Jeter about his 10 championship rings: "You're never going to catch me, Derek!"

But Jeter was a machine in the postseason, and there's no arguing that. He loved being a Yankee, too. The Babe and the gang would've surely approved.