A Hall of Fame Shortstop, Through and Through
When it was all over in New York, after he singled home the winning run on his final swing, Derek Jeter at last turned nostalgic. For two decades, he had been the master of the moment, always pushing forward, never lingering on what it all meant. But now he had given his last performance on his favorite stage.
So Jeter took a final visit to his happy place, shortstop at Yankee Stadium. He had been feted with goodbye gifts at other stops in that 2014 season, but all he wanted from the Bronx was a mental snapshot. He crouched on the grass, just beyond the lip of the dirt, said a prayer of thanks, and drank it in.
“I want to take something special from Yankee Stadium,” Jeter said later. “The view from shortstop here, tonight, is what I want to take from it.”
On Wednesday, in Cooperstown, N.Y., Jeter will have another view to last a lifetime. Weather permitting, he will gaze out from behind a lectern at the Clark Sports Center and see a hillside full of fans eager to witness his induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Attendance will be lower than usual; the ceremony was canceled last year because of the coronavirus, and pushed back this year to a midweek afternoon, after Labor Day, to limit the number of fans who can make the trek. But the 2020 class — Jeter; the former outfielder Larry Walker; the former catcher Ted Simmons; and the union chief, Marvin Miller, who died in 2012 — will finally have their day.
It is daunting for just about anyone.
“There’s nights where I don’t go to sleep — and when I do go to sleep, it’s not for very long, because I’m waking up and it’s all going through my head,” said Walker, who has rehearsed his speech many times. “So believe me, butterflies are here right now, and there’s a lot of them.”
If Jeter is nervous, chances are he will not show it. He said last week that he had still not finished his speech and would not share it with anyone before delivering it. He has resisted any impulse to script out the day, he said, so he can savor the moments as they happen.
But Jeter, now the chief executive of the Miami Marlins, is obviously aware of the exclusive ranks he is joining. Just 333 people have a spot in the Hall of Fame, and only 10 were shortstops who played for one team. Somewhat surprisingly, five did it in the free-agent era: Jeter; the Cincinnati Reds’ Barry Larkin; the Baltimore Orioles’ Cal Ripken Jr.; the Detroit Tigers’ Alan Trammell; and the Milwaukee Brewers’ Robin Yount, who played almost half of his career in the outfield.
“People identify with certain players on a team, and that core player, for the most part, is the shortstop,” said Larkin, now a Reds broadcaster and senior adviser to the team president. “I think you build your team around that position and those players and personalities that man that position.”
What Might Have Been
Jeter and Larkin could have been teammates. The Reds held the fifth overall pick in the 1992 draft, and after four teams — Houston, Cleveland, Montreal and Baltimore — passed on Jeter, some in the draft room at Riverfront Stadium thought they would take Jeter, a star at Kalamazoo Central High School in Michigan.
A top scout, Gene Bennett, had been instrumental in drafting amateurs from the Midwest like Larkin, Paul O’Neill and Chris Sabo, a group that helped the Reds win the 1990 World Series. Bennett badly wanted Jeter, but the scouting director, Julian Mock, took a college outfielder named Chad Mottola instead.
“Julian Mock’s position in the room, and I’ll never forget this, he said: ‘Mottola’s got a chance to be a 40-home run guy, he’s got a great arm, and we already have Larkin,’” said Jim Bowden, who was then the Reds’ director of player development.
“Larry Barton Jr. — another one of the older Reds guys who were there forever — stood up and said, ‘What do you think we did with Eric Davis? Eric Davis was a shortstop, too, and we put him in center field.’ And Gene Bennett said, ‘Exactly, we could move Jeter to center or you could have Jeter play shortstop and Larkin play center. But there’s enough middle of the diamond for everybody. Don’t let that be the reason.’”
It was a monumental mistake for the Reds, who are still waiting for their next pennant. They would get only 17 hits from Mottola, who batted .200 in a brief career and is now the hitting coach for the Tampa Bay Rays. Jeter, meanwhile, collected 3,465 hits for the Yankees, batted .310 and made 2,660 starts at shortstop, the most in baseball history.
A Shortstop Is a Shortstop
In a mind-set the Yankees would come to embrace, Bowden, who was named the Reds’ general manager in late 1992, said he would not have moved his established star off shortstop. Larkin had extraordinary range to his left, Bowden explained, but perhaps more than that, it would have simply been awkward to dislodge his franchise cornerstone from shortstop. The position may be more central to a player’s identity than any other besides catcher.
“I would agree with that,” Larkin said. “I think it’s the constant communication. You’re involved in every pitch of the game, because although the ball may not be hit to you, when the catcher is throwing that ball back to the pitcher, it’s your responsibility to make sure the ball doesn’t float into center field. So that’s part of it.
“The other thing is you’re the communicator between the bench, the infield and the outfield. You’re in the middle of the field, so you kind of have control-tower responsibilities, if you will. So communication’s another big deal — and, of course, any and every team that’s had success is strong up the middle.”
So it was for the Yankees of Jeter’s era. His team won five championships, mostly with Jorge Posada at catcher and Bernie Williams in center field. Curiously, all three were often maligned for their defense, Jeter especially; according to Baseball Reference, he ranked better in the field than a typical replacement player in just three of his 20 seasons.
Yet for all of that, the Yankees won so prodigiously that Jeter played exactly one home game in his entire career with the team eliminated from postseason contention: that final game in 2014.
“I prided myself on being consistent, and when a play needed to be made, I felt as though I was going to make it,” Jeter said last week, on a conference call with reporters. “And I argue that my teammates had confidence in me making the plays as well. So I don’t really put much into it, because I don’t think it’s possible to have that much success as a team if you had someone that was just so poor defensively.”
Jeter played shortstop because his father, Charles, had played there at Fisk University in Nashville. Charles coached Derek in Little League, and played his son at second and third base, too. A brief escape from the infield did not go well.
“I remember being very young and telling my dad I thought it was easy to play outfield, and he put me in the outfield, hit me some fly balls and I wasn’t very good,” Jeter said. “So that was the end of the outfield experiment.”
Jeter stayed at shortstop, and only shortstop, until the very end. He stayed there in his first full professional season, with Class A Greensboro in 1993, when he made 56 errors. He stayed there in 2004, when Alex Rodriguez — the American League’s reigning Gold Glove Award-winning shortstop — joined the Yankees and switched to third. Jeter broke his ankle diving at short in the 2012 playoffs, costing him most of the next season, but he returned to play 140 games in the field at age 40.
“Derek was, I think, the most confident player I ever played with,” said Yankees Manager Aaron Boone, a former third baseman, who played beside Jeter in 2003. “The guy who just said: ‘Give me the ball,’ always wanted the ball, and just played the game with a ton of confidence. It didn’t mean he was the best of the best, necessarily, but I felt like there was an underlying, real confidence in what he was doing, and that helped make him even better than he was.”
The Plays That Made the Player
Regardless of any questions about his defense, some of Jeter’s most indelible highlights came in the field: his balletic flip to the plate in Oakland when facing playoff elimination in 2001; his face-smash into the seats at Yankee Stadium to snag a fast-sinking foul against Boston in 2004. He wore Michael Jordan’s Jumpman logo on his cleats and took to the air for his signature move: When a grounder to his right pulled Jeter into the outfield, he would scoop, elevate and fire a strike to first.
“To jump, full-speed, in the opposite direction and turn and throw it on the money, it’s crazy,” said Yankees infielder Andrew Velazquez, who grew up in the Bronx idolizing Jeter. “He had an absolute cannon. I tried it in the minor leagues a few times and I think I three-hopped it.”
Velazquez was 10 months old when Jeter made his debut in May 1995, at the Kingdome in Seattle, batting ninth and going 0 for 5. Jeter finished that season in the same park, watching from the bench — he was not on the active roster — as the Mariners eliminated the Yankees in a thrilling division series.
The next season would end much differently for Jeter: at shortstop in Yankee Stadium, celebrating his team’s first World Series title in 18 years. It would ingrain in Jeter a demanding but matter-of-fact standard, that a season is only successful if it ends in a championship.
Jeter’s fans loved him for that mentality, and more.
“He was very consistent about who he was and what he wanted to be as far as winning, and I think that attitude carries over into every aspect of life,” Velazquez said. “To my generation, he’s a role model. Even players that are still coming up, guys born in the 2000s, they look up to him. The way he handled his business on and off the field, and now what he’s doing after the game — he’s like everybody’s favorite player. Your favorite player’s favorite player, you know?”
Jeter had an uncanny ability to shake off defeat while noticing and internalizing everything. Early in his career, a pitcher stole a strike from him with a quick pitch; from then on, every time he dug into the batter’s box, Jeter would raise his right arm to ask the umpire for time. When Bob Sheppard, the venerable public-address announcer, mispronounced Posada’s name in those 1995 playoffs — “Posado,” he said — Jeter heard it and stuck the nickname “Sado” on his friend for the rest of their careers.
He also learned to never make excuses, a lesson embedded in the Yankee experience. With each passing championship, Jeter said, Yogi Berra would remind him that he had won a record 10 as a player. It is tougher to win now, Jeter would protest, citing modern playoff rounds, but Berra would cut him off.
“His response was: ‘You can come over to my house and count the rings anytime you want,’” Jeter said. “So I always felt as though you’re trying to chase something.”
Jeter, now 47, has not given up the chase. He is still competing, trying to build a franchise in his image. But the first chase is over, and the long road has led him, at last, to the only stage grander than shortstop in the Bronx.
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