Jeter near top of list of all-time greatest Yanks
Where would you rank Captain Clutch among the pinstriped elite?
Soon after I heard that familiar buzz from my iPhone, I glanced down and read an interesting text from my 22-year-old godson, Julian.
"Is Jeter the greatest Yankee ever?"
The quick answer is no. But before we make the inevitable leap to the Babe, Lou, Yogi and the rest, let's put this into perspective. Julian is from the Atlanta area, where I've lived for nearly three decades, and he was born in 1991 when the Braves began their record streak of 14 consecutive division titles. With much help from the tomahawk folks, ranging from the charismatic David Justice to Cy Maddux, Cy Glavine and Cy Smoltz to future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, Julian became a diehard baseball fan. It also didn't hurt that Uncle Terry took his wide-eyed godson to a slew of games, including ones at Wrigley Field in Chicago and Miller Park in Milwaukee.
So this shouldn't surprise you: Julian is an impressive baseball historian for his age. If you say, "Let's play two," he'll quickly mention Mr. Cub, if he doesn't say Ernie Banks. He can rattle off the significance behind "The Shot Heard 'Round The World." He can hum every line of Terry Cashman's "Talking Baseball." He also can tell you more than a few Jackie Robinson stories -- and even more about the Big Red Machine, Uncle Terry's favorite team.
All of that said, you should keep this in mind: The greatest player of Julian's generation always stepped to the plate at home games to the sound of, "Now batting for the Yankees, the shortstop, No. 2, Derek Jeter, No. 2." So when Julian asked, "Is Jeter the greatest Yankee ever?," he already had Jeter sitting among the elite of the pinstriped elite.
To which I say ... yep. That's about right. More specifically, Jeter ranks in the all-time top three of Yankees.
Nobody ever will surpass Babe Ruth. Without his departure from the Red Sox to the Yankees during the Woodrow Wilson administration, there would be no decades-long love affair with the home run, no Yankee Stadium (I mean, it was The House That Ruth Built), no foundation to build the walls and the roof for pinstriped legends to come, no Major League Baseball. The combination of Ruth and Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis saved the game from perishing after the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, which means the list of the all-time greatest Yanks players features an eternal battle for No. 2 on down.
Well, make that No. 3 on down.
It's difficult to shove anybody in either baseball or Yankees history above Lou Gehrig, and this goes deeper than 2,130. He played that many consecutive games for the all-time record until Cal Ripken Jr. came along. If that wasn't dandy enough, Gehrig spent nearly an eternity holding the mark for most grand slams during a career with 23, until Alex Rodriguez ripped his 24th last season.
But neither Ripken nor Rodriguez -- or anybody else for that matter -- can touch Gehrig's overall aura. What other person outside of "The Natural's" Roy Hobbs could bash 493 homers in 17 seasons with an on-base percentage of .447, a slugging percentage of .632 and a batting average of .340?
Then there are those little things, which start with a big thing: Gehrig became more accomplished than his Ruthian teammate in several ways. He was the first Major League player to have his uniform retired. Before that, Gehrig was the first athlete to appear on the cover of a Wheaties box. He also was the inspiration for the best baseball movie ever made ("The Pride of the Yankees"), and on July 4, 1939, he made The Speech at Yankee Stadium.
Julian will tell you in hurry that the words, "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth" rank among the most poignant ever spoken before a massive public gathering.
Now that we got the easy part out of the way, No. 3 on the Yankees' all-time list of great players is a crapshoot. So, why not Jeter at this point? And, yes, I know the arguments for Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, the only others who challenge Jeter for this honor.
No question, DiMaggio was huge. He had that 56-game hitting streak, and he once was married to Marilyn Monroe. Not only that, during DiMaggio's 13 seasons with the Yankees, they won 10 AL pennants and nine World Series championships. He could hit and field, too. And Mantle could do both of those things while running like crazy to join Willie Mays as one of the game's first five-tool athletes. Mantle also is tied with Jim Thome for the Major League record for most walk-off home runs with 13. And like DiMaggio, Mantle won big with the Yanks -- 12 pennants and seven World Series championships during his 18 seasons.
Berra also won big with the Yankees (14 AL pennants and 10 World Series championships), and in addition to his nearly peerless ways behind the plate with his glove and his arm, he was superb in the clutch with his bat. He led the Yanks in RBIs for seven straight years through 1955 despite having either Mantle or DiMaggio in the same lineup. Mostly, Berra is beloved for his Yogi-isms, and long before adolescence, Julian learned the famous ones, ranging from "It ain't over till it's over" to "It's deja vu all over again."
But you know what? Berra never reached 3,000 hits. Neither did DiMaggio or Mantle, but Jeter did. And unlike that trio, Jeter had several moments for the ages at the plate AND in the field. Jeter also won big with the Yankees. You even could make the case that -- due to free agency in his era, along with both leagues using divisions and Wild Cards and the emphasis on parity in general over the last several decades -- he grabbed four World Series rings in his first five seasons with the Yanks (five rings overall) during a more competitive time than that of Ruth, Gehrig, Berra, DiMaggio and Mantle.
Oh, and Julian would want me to mention this: None of those other Yankees were nicknamed Mr. November.