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Jeter should be unanimous Hall of Fame pick

November 30, 2019

Maybe the best place to start with Derek Jeter is with all the things he was not. He was not the greatest Yankee. He was not the greatest shortstop of all time. Truth is, he wasn’t the shortstop that Alex Rodriguez was when Rodriguez got to the old Yankee Stadium

Maybe the best place to start with Derek Jeter is with all the things he was not.

He was not the greatest Yankee. He was not the greatest shortstop of all time. Truth is, he wasn’t the shortstop that Alex Rodriguez was when Rodriguez got to the old Yankee Stadium in 2004 and moved over to third base because the position of shortstop was taken, and would be for another decade. Jeter never had the most range. He was never the MVP of his league. He was never as great at what he did as his teammate, Mariano Rivera, was at what he did in the ninth inning. Maybe for some of these reasons or all of them, Jeter will be left off some ballots in this year’s voting for the Hall of Fame. But he shouldn’t be.

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Did Jeter have numbers? Oh man, did he ever. He played 20 years in the big leagues and walked away from the game with a lifetime batting average of .310. Cal Ripken, Jr. moved off short finally. Jeter never did. Even when The Captain of the Yankees was 40, he played 145 games. In the end, Jeter’s lifetime batting average was 34 points higher than Ripken’s was. When he got his 3,000th hit, at the new Stadium, it was a home run off David Price. Jeter finished with 3,465 hits in all. Only five players had more.

And then there was the postseason. You can make the case that Jeter is the best and most consistent and most reliable October/November player in history. He ended up playing 158 postseason games in his career, the equivalent of a full regular season. He had a total of 650 at-bats. He hit 20 postseason home runs. His batting average ended up being just two points lower -- .308 -- for his postseason career than it had been in the regular season. You hear all the time about players rising to the occasion. With Jeter, the occasion was actually any game he played, from the end of March sometimes into November. The stakes changed. He never did.

Ten times in his postseason career, he hit better than .400 for a series. Of course, in the shadow of 9/11 in his city, when he hit the home run against the D-backs in the first World Series game played past October, we called him Mr. November that night. Of course there was the night in Oakland against the A’s, in the American League Division Series in 2001, when he seemed to come from the Bay Bridge to take a cutoff throw and make practically a no-look flip to get Jeremy Giambi at the plate in a 1-0 game. In the last full playoff series of his career -- before breaking his ankle against the Tigers in 2012 in the AL Championship Series -- at the age of 38, he hit .364 and had eight hits in five games in an ALDS win over the Orioles.

But he was always more than numbers. We were talking at his locker one time about how statistics were the lifeblood of baseball and how the record books connected generations, and Jeter said, “But there’s still only one that matters: Did your team win the game.”

I told him that’s how basketball coaches measured how their point guards had played in a particular game, and the man who was the point guard for the Yankees for two decades said, “They’re right.”

I’ve told this story before. But there was a day at the old Stadium when the Yankees were about to begin the postseason under Joe Torre. I believe it was 1999, after Jeter and the Yankees had already won two World Series in the last three seasons and were on their way to winning four of five before they were done.

I said, “You know, this isn’t going to go on forever.”

Jeter, deadpanned, looked at me and said, “Why not?”

But you really can’t measure Jeter simply by the numbers, not if you saw the whole show from him the way a lot of us in New York did after he ran out to shortstop on Opening Day in 1996 against the Indians. Jeter was the most important Yankee, the face of the team when the Yankees became the Yankees again under Torre starting in ’96. He was the player that all the kids wanted to be the way kids wanted to be Mickey Mantle in the '50s and '60s. In so many ways, he was their Joe DiMaggio. He did not make headlines. He wasn’t as quiet as DiMaggio was, not in the modern world, not with all the media, not being who he was with the Yankees and in New York and in baseball. He just never said anything more than he needed to say. DiMaggio played in 10 World Series for the Yankees. They won nine. Jeter played in seven and won five.

As Jeter was set to begin his final season, this is what Torre told me over the phone one day:

"We live in a time when we glorify too many bad things. Derek has always represented good things."

Jeter mattered in his time to Yankees fans the way Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and DiMaggio and Mantle mattered before him. You had to be there to fully understand. Maybe there will be voters who leave him off their ballots. That’s their right. They’ll just be wrong. One hundred percent.