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Jeter deserving of place among Yankees' legends

Bombers captain set for a final victory lap in his 20th season in pinstripes

Derek Jeter's legacy will not be all that complicated. He was the perfect baseball player. Got anything else?

In fact, it could be argued that Jeter is the greatest player who ever lived. Wrap your mind around that idea. Think of all the ways we assess a player's career and tell me another player who ranks ahead of Jeter.

First, Jeter has been incredibly productive. In his 17 full seasons, he has averaged 194 hits. His lifetime batting average is .312. Jeter's trophy case has five Gold Glove Awards and five Silver Slugger Awards. He's a 13-time All-Star.

Jeter has never won an American League Most Valuable Player Award, but he's finished in the Top 10 eight times. Those top-10 finishes were spread over a span of 15 seasons. So for a long time, he was a tremendous player, one of the best in the game. His 3,316 hits are the 10th most in history.

Also, Jeter was a winner. His teams have gone to the World Series seven times and won it five. The Yankees have missed the playoffs once when he was healthy.

And there's the other stuff.

Has any player ever represented the New York Yankees better than Derek Jeter? He was one of those guys who always said and did the right thing. From the moment Jeter arrived, he understood there was something special about being a Yankee, that there was a responsibility. Was there ever a misstep?

Between Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jeter, there probably wasn't a single memorable quote in all those years. Rather, they believed that Yankees were supposed to shine the light on the field instead of themselves.

Almost every player who played with Jeter or managed him or covered him came away amazed by his iron will, his unshakable discipline and his meticulous preparation. His focus was laser-like on the big picture.

When Jeter suffered that gruesome ankle injury during the 2012 playoffs, it was surreal seeing him down on the field. There was collective silence inside Yankee Stadium, because it was almost impossible to comprehend that this tough, resilient and seemingly indestructible player -- this heart and soul of the Yankees -- wasn't getting up.

From the moment Jeter was helped from the field, we thought he would be back as good as new the following spring. Regardless of the severity of the injury -- and that Jeter was pushing 40 -- we simply could not believe he wouldn't make a miraculous recovery.

When Jeter showed up moving gingerly and looking like almost any other 38-year-old player, it was perhaps the first time that some of us began to realize he might not play forever.

Here's guessing that Jeter was just as surprised as the rest of us. Until that point, there'd always been a different standard for this guy.

We still don't know what Jeter is capable of or what his left ankle will allow him to do. Will he still look like the player we want to remember? Can Jeter go out the way he deserves to go out? In a perfect world, he'll play great and make the entire year an appropriate victory lap.

Few players are allowed to write their own ending. The game almost always tells them when it's time to go instead of the other way around. Maybe it'll be different with Jeter. Maybe the magic will return for one more ride, for this 20th season.

Maybe you didn't get to see Babe Ruth play, or Lou Gehrig or Joe DiMaggio or Yogi Berra. Maybe you've thought of how lucky the fans who watched them were. Maybe you wish you were one of them.

On the other hand, you got to see the great Jeter. As long as baseball is played, he'll be one of those players every other is measured against -- not just by the raw numbers, but the way he moved and reacted, the ease with which he played the most difficult game on earth.

Jeter did everything gracefully, with dignity and poise. He never seemed rattled. Even when he was moving at full speed, he seemed to be completely under control, to be dictating the game. This season, we may have a chance to let him know how much pleasure he has given us through the years.

Jeter's place in Yankees history will be debated and discussed forever. Was he greater than DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle? Does Jeter deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with the Babe or Yogi?

That we're even having this conversation tells you what Derek Jeter has meant to baseball, how much he has given and how he'll be remembered. And how lucky we've been to watch this guy play.

Here's to one final joyous ride.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
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