Derek Jeter isn't the greatest winner in the history of the New York Yankees, even though the Yankees won five World Series while Jeter was their shortstop. They won 10 while Yogi Berra played for them. Joe DiMaggio played in 10 Series in his Yankee career and his team won nine of them.
There was actually a time, back when Jeter and the Yanks were on their way to winning four World Series in five years, when I was with him in front of his locker one day, back near the entrance to the trainer's room in the clubhouse at the old Yankee Stadium, and said, "You know, It's not always going to be like this."
Jeter looked up, an almost curious look on his face, and said, "Why not?"
The winning didn't last forever. The Yankees were three outs away from winning their fifth Series in six years in Phoenix, Ariz., in 2001, the one that played out in the shadow of Sept. 11. They were ahead 2-1 because Alfonso Soriano had hit a home run off Curt Schilling, and Mariano Rivera was in the game, and then Rivera threw a ball away and the Yankees didn't turn a double play and Tony Womack doubled to right and finally Luis Gonzalez, with the infield in, blooped one over Jeter's head and the Yankees lost Game 7 to the Diamondbacks.
Buster Olney wrote a book about that Series and that night called "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," and Buster turned out to be right. Jeter's Yankees wouldn't win another Series, Jeter's fifth, until 2009. So that was No. 5 for No. 2. So he didn't win as many as the Yankees of Yogi did, or Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle. It is interesting, though, that the last one put him past Babe Ruth, the player who first made the Yankees the Yankees. Because Jeter, from the time he ran out to shortstop for good in April of 1996, turned out to be as important a figure for the New York Yankees as Ruth was in the 1920s.
It doesn't mean he was as good a baseball player as Babe Ruth was, or Lou Gehrig, or DiMaggio, or Mantle. He wasn't. Not what this particular conversation is about. Jeter was never the best player in baseball, despite his longevity and despite the amazing career he had, one that never saw a single losing season, a career that saw him win one last game for the Yankees at the Stadium in the last game he ever played there, when he pushed a single into right field against the Orioles. Don Mattingly, when he was young and healthy, was a better hitter than Jeter was even when Jeter was having his own very best years.
For kids who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, the young Mickey Mantle will always be remembered as a comic-book superhero. They don't remember the drinking or the late nights with Mantle, or the way his knees and his body broke down. They remember what Mantle was like when he was young, in the time when both he and Willie Mays were young in New York City.
Still: No Yankee since Ruth mattered to the Yankees and their fans as much as Derek Jeter did, especially when he was young. He was the star of the team, he was the face of the team -- he was the player the kids wanted to be, and it is all inextricably tied to the fact that it all happened as the Yankees became the Yankees again.
There is no attempt here to make Jeter into more than he was because the Yankees will retire his No. 2 on Sunday. This is what he meant at Yankee Stadium, and that mostly means the old Stadium, the one where he said all the "ghosts" resided, the ghosts he said came with the Yankees when they moved to the north side of 161st and into their fancy, nearly palatial, new digs.
Jeter liked it there fine. He liked it better across the street, in those years when Yankee fans did see one more Yankee dynasty, organized around what was called the Core Four: Jeter, Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte. There were others, of course, who played such a huge part of the Yankees becoming the Yankees again, starting with the manager, Joe Torre, who came to the Stadium when Jeter did, and not only became the top top-manager in sports in those first five years, but helped do something that sports fans would have once thought impossible: take Yankee hating out of play.
When they had Derek Jeter Day at the new Stadium, in September of 2014, Jeter told the fans, "You all watched me grow up."
He said, "I got to be the shortstop of the New York Yankees, and there's only one of those."
Then he thanked everybody in the place and everybody watching that day for "making me feel like a kid for the last 20 years." Outside the park that day, I talked to a 35-year old fan named Jim Strype from Jersey, who said that when Jeter retired in a few weeks, that Strype would feel like the one "saying goodbye to being a kid."
A few weeks later he got a hit in his last time at-bat at the Stadium and beat the Orioles. He could have quit on that one. It wasn't Ted Williams hitting a home run in his last at-bat at Fenway Park for the Red Sox, the way Williams had done against the Baltimore Orioles in 1960. The Red Sox had a series to play against the Yankee after that, in New York. Williams was done. "Kid Bids Hub Fans Adieu" was the headline of John Updike's beautiful piece in The New Yorker about that home run. Jeter's goodbye was different. He went with the Yankees to Fenway Park and got two more hits there. Ended up with 3,465 for his career. Now he was done. There are a lot more numbers than that with him. On Sunday night at the Stadium, the only number to talk about is his:
For now, he is the last guy to be captain of the Yankees. Brian Cashman, the team's general manager, created a bit of a stir two years ago when he said this to me one day on the radio:
"As far as I'm concerned, and I'm not the decision-maker on this, that captaincy should be retired with No. 2. I wouldn't give up another captain's title to anyone else … Leadership comes in a lot of forms, it would be a hard one to anoint someone captain, regardless of how great they might be."
There will likely be another Yankee captain someday. If Cashman is building another Yankee team to last here, whether it wins the way the Yankees did between 1996 and 2002, maybe someday there will be a call to make Aaron Judge captain of the Yankees or Gary Sanchez, or some kid who hasn't even yet shown up in The House that George Steinbrenner Built. Then it will turn out that Jeter didn't retire the captaincy of the Yankees the way he ultimately retired No. 2.
But no one will have this kind of run, a shortstop who played 20 years for the most famous baseball team in this world. There will be Yankees who matter mightily on the north side of 161st. No one will matter more than Jeter did.