#MLBRank: Derek Jeter just missed the top 50? He'll take the rings

ByAndrew Marchand ESPN logo
Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Derek Jeter's greatest quality mostly couldn't be seen, only heard. If you were around him enough, you listened to him say many times that you're either playing -- or you're hurt. His message: If you take the field with an injury, you're 100 percent.

Jeter never made excuses, which, because he was the New York Yankees' captain and one of the greatest players of all time, made it essentially impossible for anyone on the Yankees' 25-man roster to offer alibis. His maniacal obsession with winning, combined with a mostly placid outward demeanor, helped create a calm during so many October playoff storms -- and even one quite memorable one in November -- that helped lead to five Yankees championships.

He was a product of the dynastic Yankees -- and they were a product of him. Their success is all really chicken-and-egg stuff. That's why grading Jeter as an individual player can be looked at through so many different lenses. His exceptionalism was wrapped around his team's success. While many times it ended in October glory, it began in the attitude he brought to spring training, arriving early, setting the attitude for his team. From a reporter's perspective, he wasn't the most interesting person to talk to -- politely aloof is how I've often described him to friends. He was very careful when sharing his thoughts, objecting to questions with any negative connotations. It was all about building a confident, positive attitude, which permeated his championship teams. Jeter, of course, needed talent around him, but his leadership was a vital ingredient.

So how do you judge something you can't see? If, like Ernie Banks (No. 46 on our list), Jeter played for hapless Cubs teams that never sniffed a title, would he be remembered as a sort of Craig Biggio-type -- a Hall of Fame player based on his 3,000-plus hits, but not much more?

If he were on the Baltimore Orioles teams of Cal Ripken Jr. (No. 47 on our list), would the fact that Jeter hit 23 or more homers just twice, while Ripken averaged 23 per 162 games during his career make it impossible to rank Jeter ahead of the Iron Man?

There are arguments for why Jeter is just where he belongs -- at No. 51 -- and arguments for why he should be above Banks and Ripken instead. But what should not be held against him is all his magical moments, as if they happened by chance or luck in the context of his team's successes.

Yes, he has had more postseason opportunities -- with the expanded playoffs coinciding with his career -- than anyone in baseball history, but he took full advantage of them. So he has The Flip, the Mr. November home run and the Jeffrey Maier game to help build his legend.

And he didn't save his flair all for the postseason. He had the bloody catch against the Red Sox, when he ran full-steam into the stands. His 3,000th hit was a home run, on a 5-for-5 day. His final hit at Yankee Stadium was a walk-off single, a trademark one-hopper through the right side.

He could be selfish, at times. He could have stood up for Alex Rodriguez at certain points in their tenure as Yankees teammates, but the captain of the franchise chose personal animosity over siding with a valuable and vulnerable teammate, whom the fans were pummeling.

Despite his nearly flawless reputation, Jeter could be outlandish. After finishing an almost $200 million contract, he demanded the same rate, though the quality of his play at the end of his career had diminished to the point where there was no free-agent market for him.

But, despite some hiccups, he was all about the team. He didn't care all that much about personal accomplishments; his stated goal was to match Yankees legend Yogi Berra for most World Series rings. Berra won 10; Jeter made it halfway there.

Jeter's attitude separated him from many of his peers, but he could also play. If you believe he never used performance-enhancing drugs, as most presume, you could make a real argument he deserved to be a lot higher up this list because we know many of his competitors -- yes, and teammates -- were juicing. That makes what Jeter did on the field that much more impressive.

Jeter never won a regular-season MVP, a batting or home run title. He did collect 3,465 hits, sixth all time -- one tangible in which he beats both Banks and Ripken.

I never covered Banks or Ripken, so I can't say first-hand what type of attitude they brought to the park. I witnessed Jeter's often. If you were starting an all-time team, you could pick Banks or Ripken or A-Rod as your starting shortstop. Ultimately, I would probably take their superior tangibles over Jeter's intangibles. However, you couldn't go wrong if you had the Yankees' No. 2 as your No. 1, either.

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