Saturday, July 9, 2011

A modern-day legend

  The Yankees’ Derek Jeter got his 3,000th hit against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays today with a third inning homer off the Rays best pitcher, David Price. Because Jeter is a Yankee his chase for 3,000 has been more closely followed than the recent quests of Craig Biggio and the steroid user Rafael Palmeiro to reach the 3,000 hit milestone. I knew when he got to 2,000 hits at the age of 32 and was still averaging 200 hits a year that unless he got injured, he’d get to 3,000 and there was an outside possibility of his reaching 4,000. The decline in Jeter’s abilities over the last 2 years makes 4,000 hits out of the question. The next big Yankee milestone will be in 2 or 3 years when Alex Rodriguez will be due for his 3,000 hit (He’s 250 away). Rodriguez will get a big media treatment when his time comes, but the Yankee fans will give him the same lukewarm response that Roger Clemens 300th win got in 2003. This is understandable, since Jeter is a homegrown Yankee product, while Rodriguez and Clemens were products of other teams who came to the Yankees for money and the chance to win the championship they could never lead their teams to.

  Because he is a Yankee, Jeter has come in for a large share of criticism from the national sports media outlets like ESPN for signing a big money contract this past winter ($51 million over 3 years) and hitting leadoff even though he turned from a .320 hitter with some pop to a .270 hitter with almost no power. They’ve even been bringing up how Jeter refused to move to third base when Rodriguez (an All-Star shortstop) was signed.

  Normally I have nothing nice to say about the Yankees spending top dollar for players that are past their prime. In the 70s, Steinbrenner won a couple of championships while paying top dollar for players in their prime like Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, and Goose Gossage, but in the 80’s and early 90’s the other rich owners beat the Yankees to the prime free agents while Steinbrenner overpaid for over-the-hill players like Ken Griffey Sr., Davey Collins, and Ken Phelps and mediocre players coming off their best year like Pascual Perez, Ed Whitson, and Steve Kemp. Meanwhile the Yankees slid into mediocrity and finally became a last place team managed by a Stump Merrill. With Steinbrenner suspended, the Yankees slowly rebuilt the farm system with players like Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettite, and Mariano Rivera and picked up inexpensive free agents that other teams thought were over the hill like Paul O’Neill and Wade Boggs instead of trading the jewels of the farm system for star players looking for a buck. Once the team had established itself as a contender, star pitchers like David Cone and Jimmy Key, and John Wetteland were purchased and the team finally made the playoffs in 1995 after a 14 year drought.

  The Yankees lost in the 1995 playoffs to the Mariners, but retooled for 1996 by getting the Mariner first baseman Tino Martinez to replace the retiring Don Mattingly, Joe Girardi at catcher, and giving the shortstop job to Derek Jeter. The Yankees won the World Series in 1996 and 3 more from 1998 to 2000. There were a lot of factors leading to the championships, but from a Yankee fan’s perspective, after 18 years of no championships, the winning started when Jeter showed up and in Jeter, Pettite, Rivera, Williams, Posada, O’Neill, Brosious, Martinez, etc., this generation of Yankee fans had a group of legends to match Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig from the 20’s, Joe DiMaggio and Gehrig in the 30s, Dimaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Mickey Mantle in the 50’s, Mantle, Ford, and Roger Maris in the 60’s, and Thurman Munson (my favorite player as a kid), Ron Guidry, and Graig Nettles in the 70’s.

  Not only is Jeter a modern day legend on the field, he has never disgraced himself off the field the way Tiger Woods and Roger Clemens have with their infidelities or Clemens, Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, etc. have with their steroid use. A guy like that should be able to play for the Yankees for top dollar as long as he wants based on his past service and hopefully he will recognize when it’s time to retire and I won’t have to see him hanging on hitting .191 with the Pirates, Royals, or some other loser team.

  The reason that Jeter didn’t move away from shortstop in 2004 to make room for Rodriguez was that Jeter didn’t have the arm to play third base and the Yankees had no room in the outfield. It was best for the team that he played shortstop. The reason that Jeter is batting leadoff this year is that the Yankees don’t have a leadoff hitter. Gardner steals bases like a leadoff man but doesn’t get on base enough and can’t hit lefties. Granderson is fast like a leadoff man, but he is in the top 10 in home runs and is needed hitting later in the order. Jeter is the best fit at leadoff. If the Yankees still had Johnny Damon, Jeter would be hitting second or seventh. He has always bounced around the lineup and hit whenever he was needed and never complained about it either. I’m sure his pride will be hurt when he is moved down in the order, but at the moment, the Yankees don’t have a lot of options at leadoff.

  Getting 3,000 hits makes Jeter a sure-fire Hall of Famer. You may think that he was already a lock, but there is an anti-Yankee bias for the HOF and I could see the same argument used against Jeter that kept Phil Rizzuto (Yankee shortstop from 1941 to 1955 and 1950 AL MVP) out for 30 years. The argument against Yankees seems to be that if you take them off the championship teams, you remove a lot of their Hall of Fame argument. To me, that is a lot of nonsense. The Yankees have always been able to have any player they wanted on their roster, and yet they chose Rizzuto be their shortstop when they won 5 World Series in a row from 1949 to 1953. Being a shortstop on a dynastic team should be proof of a Hall of Fame resume instead of an argument against it.

  It bothers me a lot to see the media nip at the heels of a champion like Derek Jeter, who has always done what’s best for his team, but that’s what the media does best. It’s a shame he is at a reduced level of ability at the same time he is getting all this attention for his 3,000 hits. It makes people forget what a great hitter he was in his prime, hitting over .300 with 200 plus hits almost every year, and that doesn’t even count all the clutch plays he’s made in the playoffs and World Series. I was happy to see him go 5 for 5 in today’s milestone game to help people all over the country see the Jeter that Yankee fans have been treated to for the last 17 years. Jeter will be as big a legend to Yankee fans 50 years from now as Mickey Mantle is to the 70 year olds today and DiMaggio, Gehrig, and Ruth were to their fathers and grandfathers.