I’ve often disagreed with Keith Olbermann’s politics, but I never questioned his baseball intelligence until Tuesday night, when I saw his 7-minute rant against Derek Jeter. Olbermann cited numerous “SABERmetric” statistics to make the case that Jeter was an average ballplayer who happened to play for a long time and compile a lot of hits. Yankees pitcher Red Ruffing—whose career began in 1924—had a higher WAR (Wins Above Replacement) average, Olbermann said. His point? Jeter is overrated.
Here’s what Olbermann failed to mention: of the thousands of men who have played Major League Baseball over the past century, only five have more hits than Jeter. His career .377 on-base percentage is best among shortstops since World War II. Also notable are his .310 lifetime batting average, .351 World Series batting average, five World Series rings, and five Gold Glove awards.
Jayson Stark at ESPN.com crunched the numbers to show how extraordinary Jeter’s career has been, and not just for its longevity. “Derek Jeter had 11 seasons in his career in which he batted over .300 and finished with both double-digit homers and steals . . . how many other players in history have had 11 seasons like that? The correct answer . . . zero.” On Sports Illustrated’s website, Michael Rosenberg noted that many of the players Olbermann says were better than Jeter played before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Olbermann also harped on Jeter’s failure to win the American League MVP award. But as Rosenberg points out, the majority of the players who finished above Jeter in the MVP voting during the heart of his career—Roger Clemens, Jason Giambi, Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada—have had their legacies tarnished by the steroids scandal.
Olbermann claimed that fans love Jeter because they are not old enough to remember the great Yankee teams of the seventies. I remember them. I also remember the Stump Merrill years when the Yankees were a laughingstock. The 1994 and 1995 Yankees began the turnaround, but it wasn’t until Jeter took over as shortstop in 1996 that their dynasty began. Olbermann also suggested that Jeter should have retired years ago and that he has hurt the team by hanging around. But before he broke his ankle during the 2012 playoffs, Jeter was at the top of his game. He led the major leagues in hits that year with 216. The ankle injury kept him sidelined for most of 2013, but this year, Jeter was batting .270 through July. He had a prolonged slump in August and the beginning of September, but lately has been playing like a 22 year-old again, spraying hits all over the field. His .255 average is still one of the best on the team. Only four everyday players—Ichiro Suzuki, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brett Gardner—have (slightly) higher averages in a year when only nine players in all the American League are batting over .300.
Baseball fans respect Derek Jeter because he cared: about the game, about the Yankees, about the fans. His competitive spirit and winning attitude mirrored New York’s during the city’s 20-year renaissance. But most of all, fans adore Jeter for the memories he has given them. What player in modern baseball history has been involved in more iconic moments? Ask any fan about “the Jeffrey Maier home run,” “the Flip,” or “the Dive,” and he will immediately know what you are talking about. Jeter always had a flair for the dramatic. On Opening Day 1996, in his first game as full-time shortstop, he homered to win the game. His 3,000th hit was a home run, too. Thursday night’s walk-off RBI single giving the Yankees a victory in the final home game of his career seemed almost scripted. A home run might have been more dramatic, but an inside-out single through the right side of the infield was quintessential Jeter.
My fondest Jeter memory is game four of the 2001 World Series, played just weeks after the attacks of September 11. I was there as October turned to November and Jeter hit the game-winning home run in one of the most improbable victories in World Series history. I remember the upper deck collapsing into a pile of crying, cheering, hugging New Yorkers. Olbermann can keep Red Ruffing. I’ll forever keep that memory of how this resilient city was personified by that resilient team, led by Derek Jeter.