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In twilight of career, New York Yankees' Derek Jeter has to rank high among greatest shortstops in history

Derek Jeter might be nearing the end of his career, but that career ranks among the best any shortstop has ever had.

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Derek Jeter might be nearing the end of his career, but that career ranks among the best any shortstop has ever had.

ST. PETERSBURG

You have had the opportunity, essentially, to see him play as much as any fan outside of New York.

He has stepped to the plate more often, and knocked out more hits, than any opposing player in the history of Tropicana Field.

So tell me, as he returns again today and his career continues to move toward its closing credits, is Derek Jeter the greatest shortstop the world has ever seen?

And, please, keep the shouting to a minimum.

For, in the area of ballparks and statistics, few players have ever inspired as much passion as the Yankees captain. He's either a legend, or overrated. He's either beloved, or another creation of New York's self-indulgence. It's either a sham that he has won five Gold Gloves, or a crime that he hasn't won more.

Naturally, the truth can probably be found in the middle. Somewhere between hyperbole and animosity. The trick is sifting through that emotion and finding the reality.

And what makes it more difficult is deciding on the definition of history's greatest shortstop. Are we talking only about players who spent their entire careers at shortstop, or do we include those who spent a significant amount of time there?

For instance, Ernie Banks played less than half of his games at shortstop. Robin Yount played about 55 percent of his games there. Alex Rodriguez spent eight full seasons in the big leagues as a shortstop and is now in his eighth season as a third baseman.

Taking it a step further, do you reward peaks or longevity? Do you give defense the same weight as offense? Do you believe in intangibles, or do you worship the numbers?

In other words, there is no absolute answer. Just opinions. And perceptions.

And, in this case, arguments.

Jeter vs. the conventional shortstops: By conventional shortstops, we mean the slender guys with the slick gloves and the reputations for being smart, scrappy ballplayers.

This is Pee Wee Reese. Phil Rizzuto, Luis Aparicio and Lou Boudreau. This is Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel. And this is no real comparison.

Jeter has never had the defensive ability of Vizquel or Smith, but he was a far better hitter. And, if you like the intangibles argument, Jeter is every bit the winner that Reese, Rizzuto and Boudreau were.

Put it this way:

You can make a case that Jeter is one of the 100 best players in history. It's hard to imagine any of these other shortstops on such a list.

Jeter vs. the part-time shortstops: If you look at a career as a snapshot, a glimpse of the best 10 years of a player's life, there are shortstops more dominant than Jeter.

Rodriguez would be one. Arky Vaughan would probably be another. You could even make the argument Nomar Garciaparra had a better peak than Jeter.

But, in each case, the time at shortstop was too limited. Rodriguez will eventually finish his career with far more games at positions other than shortstop. Garciaparra was done as an effective player in his early 30s.

And Vaughan, one of the most overlooked players in history, went home to be a farmer for three years near the peak of his career after a fight with manager Leo Durocher.

Once again, Jeter and his record 2,942 hits as a shortstop seems a more plausible choice.

Jeter vs. the stalwarts: These are the players who spent the bulk of their careers at shortstop and, in some cases, defined or redefined the position.

You could suggest Joe Cronin, who had the highest slugging percentage of any full-time shortstop in history.

You could suggest Luke Appling, who would have had more than 3,000 hits if his career weren't interrupted by World War II.

You could suggest Cal Ripken Jr., whose 345 home runs at shortstop are a major-league record.

But, in the end, you probably have to choose Honus Wagner.

Wagner won eight batting titles, led the NL in slugging percentage six times and trailed only Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth in voting for the inaugural Hall of Fame class in 1936.

So is Jeter the greatest shortstop in history?

Once again, it is a matter of opinion, but the combination of peak, longevity and impact would certainly seem to favor Wagner.

But you could still make a strong argument for Jeter against Ripken, Cronin, Appling, Vaughan or Barry Larkin as one of the two or three greatest shortstops in history.

It's worth considering as you watch Jeter play at Tropicana Field the next two days.

In twilight of career, New York Yankees' Derek Jeter has to rank high among greatest shortstops in history 05/15/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 16, 2011 12:30am]

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