Three presumably homeless men sit in the upstairs dining room of a Manhattan McDonald's, one of the busiest restaurants in the world, on the morning of Oct. 20, 1996, an ash-colored Sunday, the day the first game of the 92nd World Series between the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves is scheduled to begin.
The game had actually been scheduled for the day before but had been rained out, and there was some worry it might be again.
They'd each buy a coffee and avail themselves of the free refills that were temporarily on offer at this particular store. I know all this because I am eavesdropping, which is more or less my job. When they start talking baseball, I start taking notes.
"You or I could have managed this team to the World Series," the most loquacious of the trio, a thin man in a greasy Unabomber hoodie and chunky black-frame glasses above a frizzy blast of steel-gray beard, says. "What did this [manager Joe] Torre do? He took a team that was 12 games up in July and finished two games ahead. They wanted to blow it; just no one had the guts to stand up and take it from them."
His companions nod. Then one of them speaks up.
"But what about the Orioles?" he says. "They did beat those guys after all."
"Because of the kid!" Unabomber shrieks. "Because the friggin' kid [Jeffrey Maier] who leaned over the wall to catch that ball the ump called a home run! Baltimore had to win five games to win that series, the Yankees only had to win three. The umps gave 'em that game, because of the TV market. They want the big TV market. Don't think they don't have their considerations. They shoulda prosecuted that kid. Instead, they make him a hero."
The third man shakes his head.
"But the Yankees got a good team, you gotta acknowledge that," he pleads. "They got some players. That Bernie Williams, he's a good kid. That Derek Jeter"--he pronounces it "Gee-TAH," after the fashion of Red Sox fans--"he can play some ball. Best rookie in baseball."
. . .
That morning doesn't feel like it happened 24 years ago. Bernie Williams turned out to be a tasteful jazz guitarist. The friggin' kid Maier, the anti-Bartman, was a star baseball player in college; he ended up being the career-hits leader at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., where he was a first-team all-New England Small College Athletic Conference selection. He wasn't drafted, but he got a tryout with the Yankees and an internship with the Milwaukee Brewers' front office.
And Jeter, who hit the warning track fly ball that Maier deflected into the stands for a home run against the Orioles in Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame last week, on the first ballot, one vote shy of unanimity because there's always one old baseball writer who thinks perfection offends the gods.
No one disputes that Jeter deserves this; he played 20 seasons for the New York Yankees. He was a very good player for a long time, and might have been one of the two or three best in 1999. While the Yankee faithful overrate him, while his defensive skills declined rather precipitously late in his career, he is among the best shortstops of all time.
I would put Alex Rodriguez, Honus Wagner and Ernie Banks clearly ahead of him, though admittedly my memories of Banks are mostly as a first baseman. At his peak, Jeter's contemporary Nomar Garciaparra was better but injuries led to him only playing 506 games after turning 30 (I think Garciaparra is a Hall of Famer even if the writers don't). Barry Larkin was better. So was Ozzie Smith. I might give Alan Trammell a slight edge over Jeter.
Jeter was slightly better than Cal Ripken and Arky Vaughan (who would rate much higher on my list had he not lost three seasons to World War II). Joe Cronin and Lou Boudreau--players known only from old books, stats and a few seconds of video--were better than Jeter. Luke Appling, Don Kessinger and Dave Concepcion are also right there, probably half a step behind Jeter.
I'm probably forgetting someone, under-valuing some pure glove men (Rabbit Maranville, anyone?) and am not considering any current players at all.
So let's call Jeter a Top 10 shortstop. Many will say that underrates him, but these are the same people who give credence to "intangibles" like leadership and points for "playing the game the right way." They might be right, but those are subjective observations.
Jeter should have moved to third base in 2004 and allowed Rodriguez--a demonstrably better fielder with more range and a stronger arm--to play short, but A-Rod was a dirty stinkin' steroid cheater and Jeter was The Captain.
Sabermetrician Bill James once described Jeter as "the most ineffective defensive player in the major leagues, at any position" and some party pooper once calculated that, in his final years, having Jeter at shortstop resulted in Yankee pitchers giving up one more hit on average than they would have otherwise. But hey, if you want to give him bonus points for being a great teammate, that's what sports are for--a place where we can safely form irrational attachments and indulge our superstitions.
I admire how Jeter conducted himself during his career; I like his work ethic and almost DiMaggio-like reserve. (Though the real DiMaggio probably wasn't anything like the image guys of my generation have of him.) I never found him genuinely lovable--not in the way players like Stan Musial and Tony Gwynn were beloved. Jeter was remote and guarded, a corporate entity, a company man.
That's all right; we love rebels but we need solid producers who show up every day and do their jobs without initiating drama. Jeter was a good ballplayer; whatever else we think he might be is at least partially our projections. We shouldn't judge anyone by their worst fans.
They got the game in on that Sunday night back in 1996. The Yankees were blown out 12-1. Jeter was hitless but scored his team's only run. The Yankees would come back to beat the Braves in six games. Seems like yesterday.
Was yesterday. That Gee-TAH could play some ball.
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Editorial on 01/26/2020