We always talk about the numbers in baseball, now more than ever. But numbers have always mattered in a different way for the Yankees, from the time they first had numbers on the backs of their uniforms, from the time Babe Ruth was No. 3 and Lou Gehrig was No.
We always talk about the numbers in baseball, now more than ever. But numbers have always mattered in a different way for the Yankees, from the time they first had numbers on the backs of their uniforms, from the time Babe Ruth was No. 3 and Lou Gehrig was No. 4. Much later, Joe DiMaggio wore No. 5, before he gave way in center field at the old Stadium to No. 7, Mickey Mantle.
Now Derek Jeter, No. 2, joins them all in Cooperstown, the way he has already joined them in Monument Park. It is worth pointing out that he mattered to Yankees fans as much as any of those old Yanks legends did. Ruth made the Yankees when he got there from Boston over 100 years ago. And then Jeter came along, with Joe Torre and the other Core Four guys, and helped remake the Yankees into what they used to be. He was with other great players, for sure. But No. 2 was the star.
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Jeter had the numbers, you better believe that. You think he didn’t? Only five men had more Major League hits than he did. They are, in formation, Pete Rose and Ty Cobb and Henry Aaron and Stan Musial and Tris Speaker. Jeter played what is essentially a full season of games and plate appearances in the postseason, and his performance never wavered against the best of the best on the October stage. Even with all of the moments all of the great Yankees before him had provided, Jeter has provided his own iconic moments:
His Mr. November home run in the 2001 World Series, in the shadow of 9/11. The flip to Jorge Posada against the A’s in the American League Division Series that year, when the Yanks were facing elimination, with Jeter seeming to come from the Bay Bridge to cut off a throw from the outfield and nail Jeremy Giambi at the plate in what turned out to be a 1-0 Yankees victory.
There was the night he did the faceplant into the stands while catching a foul ball against the Red Sox. And that day against the Orioles, in October 1996, when a ball he hit to right field at the old Stadium ended up in the glove of a kid named Jeffrey Maier and not the glove of Orioles right fielder Tony Tarasco. Moments like that, to go along with all the winning he did.
Could his Yankees have won more? Of course. But Jeter couldn’t have been any better or any more than he was. He played 20 years in New York and never embarrassed himself or the Yanks. On the last swing he ever got, at the new Stadium, he knocked home one more run in the bottom of the ninth and won his team one more game. There were still people who hated the Yankees after Jeter and Torre and the rest came along. It was just harder than it had ever been. There was no reason bigger than No. 2. He was the kid from Kalamazoo, Mich. who came up through their system and ended up in Cooperstown.
I asked a Yankees fan on Wednesday, as good and smart and passionate a Yankees fan as I know, why Jeter mattered as much as he did to him. This is what he said:
“First, there always was this romantic ideal of the homegrown Yankee superstar. We had one in Mattingly, but the injuries got him before he could get that championship and short-circuited what we thought was going to be his own Hall of Fame career. Jeter came along right after Mattingly left and quickly filled that void. If we didn’t instantly know we were watching a future Hall of Famer, we sure did know we were watching a damn good, tough baseball player. Game in, game out. He may have never won a regular-season Most Valuable Player Award, but he always did a little something to help win a ball game. A hit here, a play in the field there. Some speed. Some pop. Whatever it took. He just always seemed to be there. And you loved watching him, game in, game out.
“You look at the young Yankee stars today and you point back to Jeter, saying we all want them to act like him. Then there were the moments in Jeter’s career that seemed to come straight off of some corny action hero script, but they actually happened. And we lived it with him for close to 20 years. For me personally he was the Yankee superstar who took me from young adulthood to middle age and fatherhood, the one player my son had to see play in person. Someday he’ll speak of Jeter with the same reverence my generation speaks of my parents’ Yankees like Mantle and DiMaggio.
“But let’s not kid ourselves -- all of this wouldn’t matter quite as much were it not for all of the winning. Yeah, you can make a ‘right time, right place’ argument against him. Mattingly never got to play with those kinds of Yankee teams, with those rotations, with Mariano as his closer, with Joe as his manager. But with each passing year, I have a hard time believing any of that big winning, and any of the joy we as fans took from all of that winning, happens without Derek Jeter.”
You want to know why Jeter got every Hall of Fame vote except for one? That’s why. No. 2 had the numbers. And was so much more than just numbers.
Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.