Thursday, January 18, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Jeter's class puts Alex Rodriguez to shame

TAMPA

In the middle of a perfect news conference, the last perfect Yankee of them all suddenly stopped what he was saying. A far more noble purpose than talk of retirement had popped into his mind.

And now Derek Jeter was telling his teammates they could leave, that they could get back to work instead of paying attention to whatever small things he had to say at his news conference.

Go field a ground ball. Go hit a thrown one. Whatever you do, don't create a fuss.

It was, of course, the perfect Jeter moment, one of those moments where a member of baseball's royalty played the part of a serf.

And you could not help but wonder:

How would Alex Rodriguez have handled it?

Would he have autographed a few photos for the boys? Would he have lied? Would he have tripped? How, exactly, would the Banished One have conducted the same news conference that Jeter did on Wednesday at Steinbrenner Field?

It is odd. The two men have spent most of a decade a few feet from each other, and yet their legacies are polar opposites. In a hundred years, historians will talk about the juxtaposition of their days. Jeter might be the most admired player ever to walk away from major-league baseball. You could make a strong case that Rodriguez is the most vilified.

Yes, they both have compiled amazing numbers. Yes, they both have made untold millions of dollars. Yes, they have dated a lot of beautiful women. Yes, they both have unchallenged celebrity.

And yet, Jeter is the admired one. A-Rod is the reviled.

As Jeter spoke Wednesday, it was impossible not to compare the two once again. Why would one man be so universally admired while the other, playing on the same team in the same city, would be so despised? Why would one player represent so much that is good, while the other represents all that is bad?

It's easy.

It's called credibility.

There is substance to Jeter. There is character. When Jeter talks, and when Jeter plays, you can believe in what you see, in what you sense. No, he is not the greatest player in the history of baseball. No, he is not the greatest Yankee, not as long as Babe Ruth played there. The website baseball-reference.com quotes sabermetrician Jay Jaffe as listing Jeter as only the 12th-ranked shortstop in baseball history.

And, yet, Jeter, 39, has turned that into a career as admired as any player in the history of the game. He never has had a major scandal, like Rodriguez. He never has been accused of dogging it on the basepaths, like Robinson Cano. He never has been accused of beating his own chest, like Reggie Jackson.

Jeter showed up. He played hard. He was a tough out, especially in the seventh inning or later. He conducted himself like a Boy Scout. Forever, fans will remember his regal nature.

A-Rod? He was fake money. He was fool's gold. He cheated. He lied. He backed down. Who knows which of his numbers to believe anymore? Except, of course, those of his salary.

You wonder if Rodriguez ever watches Jeter at work and thinks that it could have been him. It could have, you know. If he had stayed clean, if he had said the right thing, if he were not quite so clumsy at all the wrong moments.

In a way, perhaps it was fate that threw the two of them side by side for the past decade. Perhaps A-Rod was our reminder to appreciate Jeter. Perhaps Jeter was our reminder that we should demand more of Rodriguez.

Has there ever been a villain like A-Rod? Sure, you can talk about the 1919 White Sox scandal and the eight players who were banned for life. But does anyone think that commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis would have been able to pull that off in today's world of lawyers, agents and unions? You can talk about Pete Rose, but his crimes (and his penalty) came after his playing career was over.

Ah, but then there is Jeter, the great shining light of baseball, the reminder of how every player should approach his job. You didn't have to like the Yankees to appreciate Jeter. He is universal.

It's odd. Every now and then, one of the stat guys who follow baseball will attempt inject a bit of reality into the Jeter conversations. You know, the Emperor doesn't wear a glove. They'll talk about Jeter's lack of range and that he isn't all that much defensively. They'll mention that he never won a league MVP (He was in the top three, three times).

But here's the thing: No one wants to hear any of it. People want to admire Jeter, which might be the most admirable thing about him. They yearn to think of Jeter as a winner, as a leader, as an elegant champion.

And all of that is great, too. Goodness knows, there isn't enough to admire in sports. You might as well admire Jeter. He has given you more reason than most.

Even now, Jeter sits at the front of a room, talking about winning, talking about playing well this year, talking about how much it means for him to be a Yankee. The guy leads the league in getting it. And that's at the core of his appeal.

He won five World Series. He won five Gold Gloves. He won five Silver Slugger awards. He has 3,316 hits. He hit .321 in his seven World Series. He and Willie Mays are the only two men who have at least 3,000 hits, at least 250 home runs, at least 300 stolen bases and at least 1,200 RBIs to their careers.

And still, you cannot define Jeter with awards. Or with statistics. Or with reputation. Or with earnings.

You define Jeter by how much the game seemed to mean to him. You define him by the class he took to the park with him daily. You define him by the footprint he will leave in the infield.

There are at least 162 more chances to see him play.

Try to appreciate him while you can.

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