Ballplayers, like most everything else, are a matter of preference. They come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Some can hit. Some can field. Some can run. Some can do all of those things to varying degrees.
So here’s the question: if you could custom-build your very own, what would he be?
Mine would look a lot like Derek Jeter.
Having played his final game at Yankee Stadium earlier this week, Jeter and the New York Yankees are now at Fenway Park for the final weekend of Jeter’s career. Following his Bronx farewell, Jeter said that he would only serve as New York’s designated hitter during the three-game series in Boston. His final game at shortstop, he said, was meant to be played on the hallowed ground of Yankee Stadium.
But when we look back on Jeter’s career, where he played will not be as important as how he played, though the fact that he was anchored in the middle of the diamond for his entire career certainly helps his cause. Some would describe Jeter as a jack-of-all-trades and master of none, which might be accurate. But for those of us who value a wide range of skill on the diamond, Jeter stands in a group of five players above all others.
In my lifetime, here are the players for whom I would drop everything to watch play: Ken Griffey Jr., George Brett, Paul Molitor, Roberto Alomar. And Jeter.
Since baseball is a game of numbers, let’s start with the simplest cutoff: a .300 average, 200 career home runs, 200 career stolen bases.
There are only seven players in the last 100 years to meet those criteria, which essentially cover the major offensive tools: the abilities to hit for average, to hit for power, and to run. If you’re looking for an appreciation of sluggers, you’ve come to the wrong place. Mark McGwire was a softball-playing cartoon character to me.
Of course, nothing is ever perfect, and this list has its flaw: Larry Walker, for instance. So that makes it a joke, right? But if we note that Walker had a career batting average in Colorado (.380 pre-humidor) that was nearly 100 points higher than his average everywhere else (.282), we start to understand something different. Larry Walker was a statistical fraud who essentially played his games on the surface of the moon, where gravity is roughly one-sixth of what it is here on earth.
But the other six players? Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Brett, Alomar, Molitor and, you guessed it, Jeter. The first two are among those in every discussion on the greatest all-around players in baseball history. (Aaron rarely gets enough credit for this as he is unfairly cast a slugger.) The other four all played their careers after 1970, which makes them contemporaries for many of us.
Griffey’s omission on this list is also something of a debatable point, though he was clearly the truest slugger in the group. Griffey’s career batting average was .284, though he batted .300 or better eight times in his career. (His average dipped significantly in his later years.) He also stole 184 bases, leaving him 16 short of, for these purposes, our magic number.
So why is he here? Because anyone who saw Griffey play knows he was the greatest player of the modern era. He was a brilliant outfielder who covered tremendous ground and had a strong, accurate, arm. He was a sensational baserunner who could have stolen a base most anytime he wanted to, but opted to preserve his legs. (In 18 career postseason games, Griffey was 5-for-6 in steal attempts.) The bottom line is that Griffey had no holes and everyone knew it.
Save for Alomar, a switch-hitter and positively scintillating defensive player, the other players on the list have glitches, too. Molitor didn’t really have a position at all. Jeter and Brett turned themselves into good defensive players, not great ones, but they hardly rank among the great defensive players at their positions. But in the end – excluding Molitor on defense – all five were an asset (or above average) in every phase of the game, which speaks to their baseball instincts, acumen, situational skill.
Need a bunt hit or a sacrifice? All five could do it. A double in the gap? Take your pick. Griffey certainly was the most equipped to drive the ball out of the ballpark, but all five could punish mistakes. All five were excellent baserunners. They could hit-and-run. They hustled.
Oh, and then there’s this: in the postseason, Griffey hit .290 but slugged six homers and posted a .947 OPS. (His career regular season number was .907.) Molitor hit .368 in his playoff career and was Most Valuable Player of the 1993 World Series. Brett batted .337 overall in the postseason and was MVP of the American League Championship Series in 1985. Alomar had a playoff average of .313 and was MVP of the 1992 ALCS.
Jeter, for his part, batted .308 in his postseason career (remarkably consistent with his career average of .310) and hit .321 in the World Series. He was World Series MVP in 2000 when the Yankees defeated the New York Mets. And for all of the criticisms of his defense in recent years, perhaps his most memorable play came on defense against the Oakland A’s in, of course, October.
Was Jeter the greatest player who ever lived? Of course not. He isn’t even the greatest Yankee. But if you like everything about baseball – the hitting, the running, the fielding, the situational play – you must admit that Jeter’s footprints and fingerprints are scattered about most every major league ballpark in North America, because he rarely played in a game he did not impact positively in at least some fashion.
You might not have him on your list.
But he’s staying near the top of mine.