This is a good time to consider the Jeter career. On Aug. 16 he passed Luis Aparicio and became the alltime hits leader for shortstops. It was a nice moment, though Jeter has really been nothing at all like Aparicio—a brilliant defensive shortstop who did not get on base but still led off for most of his career because he was fast. (Aparicio led the AL in stolen bases every year from 1956 through '64.)
The truth is, there has not really been a shortstop who compares all that well to Jeter since World War II. Well, there's Alex Rodriguez, but he has been a third baseman for the last six years and probably won't ever play shortstop again. There's Hall of Famer Robin Yount, though he really had some of his best offensive seasons as a centerfielder. There's Barry Larkin, who was a superb blend of power, speed and defense.
But Jeter is the only lifelong shortstop to hit 200 homers and steal 200 bases. He's the only lifelong shortstop of the last 50 years to punch up an on-base percentage better than .375 (.388 lifetime, and OBP is probably the most telling single offensive stat). He has moved into the top 50 lifetime in runs scored (48th, with 1,574), and there's every reason to believe that by the end of his career he will be in the top 10, maybe even the top five if he plays well into his 40s.
And hits? Well, "Hit King" Pete Rose had 2,762 hits on the day he turned 36. Assuming good health, Jeter, with 2,747, will have more when he turns 36 in June.
"Tell Derek that the first 3,000 hits are easy," said Rose, who finished with 4,256. It's a good line, but the truth is that Jeter should breeze past 3,000 hits and, depending on how important it is to him, could really climb the charts if he wants to keep going and going.
And that's probably the most compelling part of the Jeter story now. He really could keep going and going. While he has always been admired in and around New York—worshipped even—the truth is that over the last couple of years there have been increasingly louder whispers that his end is nigh. Even two or three years ago people around New York had already begun to worry about what would happen when Jeter's contract ran out after the 2010 season. Would the Yankees have to overpay to keep him into his twilight years? Would he insist on staying at shortstop even if his usefulness there had run out? Would he continue to lead off after he stopped getting on base? Or (gasp) would he actually leave New York, and can you even imagine Derek Jeter wearing a uniform other than the Yankees' pinstripes?
The worry became palpable in 2008. For the first time Jeter really did look old. He was hitting .270 in mid-June, and he wasn't hitting with any power. The Yankees were struggling, and there was this sense that the Jeter story was unhappily winding down.
But, it turns out, the obits were premature. Jeter is still Jeter. He hit his usual .323/.390/.430 the rest of the way in 2008, and in '09 he was preposterously consistent. Batting average isn't a great measuring tool, but it's telling that Jeter hit at home (.331) and on the road (.337), in wins (.337) and losses (.330), with men on base (.291) and with nobody on base (.359). He crushed lefties (.395) and hit well in short at bats (.448 when putting the first pitch in play) and long at bats (.342 when seeing seven pitches or more).
I throw all these rather pointless numbers out there because Jeter's greatness as a player so often gets packaged inside the "intangibles" box. He's a leader! He's a winner! He has incredible instincts! He's always in the right place at the right time! He never makes a mental mistake! Every time he makes a smart play—he does make a lot of smart plays; good players do that—the Jeter-as-saint thing grows, making a lot of baseball fans across America want to gag.
And it's those sorts of things that have led many to think of Jeter as a media creation. Well, he's not. He's a great player who had another great season. He's one of the best hitting shortstops in baseball history. He's an absolute first-ballot Hall of Famer even if his career were to end tomorrow.