It was just last week, when putting together my hater’s list, that I begrudgingly put Derek Jeter in my top 10. I acknowledged the rumors of some of his more colorful off the field activities, yeah Jeets. But really this is a celebration of a guy who is everything you want to be when you’re a kid.
Now there may be guys like Albert Pujols who are outspoken in their humanitarianism, but Jeter is quietly one of the most charitable players around. His foundation, Turn 2, has raised over $19 million to date. To put that into context, Jeter’s main foundation has averaged over $1 million raised per year since its inception in 1996. Activism is something that doesn’t escape one of the most successful athletes of our era.
Let’s skip over what he’s done on the field for a moment and delve into his more fascinating off the field moments. Derek Jeter burst onto the scene enjoying the nightlife as a 21-year-old wealthy athlete in a vibrant city should. But while we saw the Mariah Carey’s and Adriana Lima’s of the world hang on his arm, we never really felt like we knew Jeter. In a time when we know every little thought that’s running through a player’s mind thanks to social media, Jeter was always at arm’s length away. There was always a sort of mystique. Even his commercials were him playing himself. Really, one of the rare times we ever got a glimpse that Jeter was more than a polished answer was when he hosted SNL back in 2001. Well, there’s this, too.
But whatever the outcome, Derek Jeter had class like the Yankees of yesteryear and was protected as such. Every reporter of the day knew Mickey Mantle had a drinking problem. Before that, every reporter knew Babe Ruth was a womanizer. But their auras were preserved and revered. Jeter possess that in a time when journalists and lay folk try to find — either out of vitriol or entertainment — a celebrity in a less than favorable position. Somehow, Jeter was able to be beloved like Ruth, respected like Lou Gehrig, play like Mantle and have the Hollywood vibe of Joe DiMaggio.
Recently there’s been a lot of talk, especially with LeBron James saying he belongs on the NBA’s Mt. Rushmore, of where Jeter fits into the Yankees list of all-time greats. I’ll tell you, there are endless combinations for the Yankees version of Mt. Rushmore. For my money, here’s how it breaks down:
Ruth is clearly in the number one position. The Sultan of Swat, the King of Crash, the Colossus of Clout. He’s a man who came from a broken home and all of the vices of a modern day athlete, but with the charm of a movie star. In a way, Ruth was paradigm shift for the American public. No longer were our politicians the sole source of our admiration, athletes became en vogue along with the rising moving-picture scene. Ruth was the face of roaring ’20s, and few roared louder than this cigar-smoking, beer-chugging, hot dog-eating seemingly mythical human.
Mantle has to be number two. Considered to be one of the greatest athletes to ever play the game, Mantle racked up numerous accomplishments in his 18-year career. He holds nearly ever record for a switch-hitter and still ranks toward the top of any power-hitter list with 536 home runs in his career. We know about the blazing speed he used to get down the line and patrol center field. He was clocked at 3.1 seconds out of the lefty batter’s box, a feat that has never been matched. The Mick even was offered a football scholarship to for the University of Oklahoma. But with any legend, there’s always those moments that transcend generations.
Mantle had a homer that was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records at 643 feet — after it stopped rolling — which was later changed to give credit to Ruth for 575-foot homer in 1921. But if you ask any fan, you’ll surely get an answer that The Mick hit the longest homer ever at landing point. Greg Rybarczyk did a fun study of this just last year and how incredibly difficult it is even for today’s superhuman players. Here’s Mantle talking about a homer that he thinks was even greater than one above.
Gehrig checks in at third. Perhaps the most understated transcendent player to ever wear any uniform, Gehrig is sadly defined by two things: His once unfathomable consecutive games started/played streak and the horrific disease that bears his name. However, Gehrig is so much more.
Gehrig was the consummate professional despite his tough upbringing in a home where three siblings had passed and an alcoholic father resided. Instead, this shy kid chose to assist his mother in her work as a maid and even study at Columbia University and play football. After finally finding his way to the baseball team and eventually the Yankees, Gehrig starred as the Scottie Pippen to Babe Ruth’s Michael Jordan. But much like Pippen — who was named one of the 50 greatest NBA players of all-time — Gehrig, too, was one of the greatest first basemen at a position that has been littered with talent since baseball’s inception. Heck, he was even the first athlete to ever appear on a Wheaties box.
Among those great accomplishments of a .340 career average, multiple championships, MVP awards and 120+ RBI seasons is a man who loved baseball, loved his wife and took on a frightening disease with a sense of calm and stability that eludes most of us. Columnist Jim Murray once referred to him as “Gibraltar in cleats.” There’s never been a better description of man who exuded such dignity, class and bravery. Through the test of time, will any athlete ever say any words more beautiful than these ?
Finally, I put Jeter on Mt. Rushmore. Before you start printing out my articles and burning them in protest, know that DiMaggio is my favorite Yankee of all time. DiMaggio was everything I wanted to be as a young Italian kid obsessed with the ’40s and ’50s. He was simply amazing. Yes, everyone knows about his 56-game hit streak, which was actually the second best of his baseball career. Yes, we know about his rings and and the admiration for him 40 years after his retirement in this great episode of Seinfeld. But the most impressive stat you can ever throw around about DiMaggio’s career was the season with only 13 strikeouts in 622 plate appearances. He never whiffed more than 39 times in one season. And as amazing as his career numbers are, he missed three years of his prime to serve in WWII. The ages of 28-30, the absolute sweet spot of a player’s career, were spent on a military base.
DiMaggio was the bridge of greatness from Ruth to Gehrig to Mantle. He wore number five and I don’t think there’s ever been a number that looked so cool. DiMaggio was the modern athlete before the modern athlete. He demanded to be paid, he enjoyed the beautiful women and the finer things in life. He was Joe Cool. The man had Marilyn Monroe on his arm, and when their marriage and her life ended, he showed that real men can be romantics as he placed flowers at her grave until his death when he whispered, “I finally get to see Marilyn.”
That being said, Jeter gets the tie-breaker in my eyes. A huge reason is that Jeter was named Captain of the Yankees, an honor DiMaggio never received. Jeter was also much more of a team player. Reports of DiMaggio hating Mantle and ultimately contributing to his torn ACL in the 1951 World Series were a focus in every account of Mantle and DiMaggio’s relationship.
On the flip side, Derek Jeter was the best man at Jorge Posada’s wedding. Jeter was there for Mariano Rivera in his final moments on the mound at Yankee Stadium in one of the most heart-warming ways a player can say goodbye.
Despite Jeter keeping the public out of private life — and rightly so — he spoke eloquently as the Yankees said farewell to the original Yankee Stadium. But when it comes down to it, Jeter has done what no other Yankee has done. He wore the pinstripes more than any other player in team history. And, I think most surprisingly, he has more hits than any other Yankee. Wrap your head around that for the four men above.
As for signature moments, it depends what you’re looking for. Do you want a signature move that will forever be linked to his style of play? Or do you like all-out effort? How about a little bloodshed? Not enough? What about a play that will stand the test of time? Okay, that should satisfy you.
Your brain looks boggled. Let me give you what you want: something so controversial that it made a fan famous and will infuriate a fan base for eternity. Here’s Jeter laying claim to an entire month, and it’s not February, ladies.
Really when it comes down to it, Jeter makes the Mt. Rushmore of Yankees because he’s consistent, clutch and forever a champion.