TAMPA, Fla. — They’ve had Ruth and Gehrig, Mantle and DiMaggio. Those four represent the Mount Rushmore for the New York Yankees, a franchise with enough great players that it could probably use the side of another mountain, too.
Derek Jeter thinks you’d have to be bored or looking for a story to discuss where he belongs in the pecking order. Larry Bowa was neither bored nor looking for a story as he finished his on-field duties as a Phillies coach Wednesday afternoon at the Carpenter Complex. He was simply expressing his opinion about a player he has spent the last two decades admiring from both afar and briefly inside the Yankees clubhouse.
“I know there have been some great ones, but he could be the greatest Yankee,” Bowa said. “Put it this way: He doesn’t have to take a backseat to any of them.”
Last week, via a Facebook page a lot of people didn’t even know he had, Jeter announced that he will retire after this season. He held a news conference at the Yankees’ spring-training facility Wednesday, and the room was packed.
It wasn’t just reporters who wanted to hear what he had to say. All the Yankees front-office people were there, including owner Hal Steinbrenner, and so were all the players, coaches, and his manager, Joe Girardi. In typical Jeter fashion, he thought his teammates and manager should have had something better to do.
“Joe,” he said, looking at his manager, “if these guys got to go work, then go work.”
It is the work that has separated Jeter, who will turn 40 in June, from all of his peers, according to Bowa. I can remember when Bowa became manager of the Phillies after the 2000 season and held a winter camp in Clearwater to get to know his players. The name he brought up was Jeter.
“If these guys want to get better, they should look at him and how he does it,” Bowa said at the time. “It’s a year-round job for him.”
Those words came back to me Wednesday as Jeter talked about his decision to walk away after this season.
“I feel as though the time is right,” Jeter said. “There are other things I want to do. I look forward to doing other things. This is a difficult job. I put everything into each and every year. It’s a 12-month job, not a six-month season.”
The rewards, of course, have been great. He is a 13-time all-star who has won five World Series and seven American League pennants. The Hall of Fame will welcome him in 2020, his first year of eligibility.
“He represents winning,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. “That’s what he has represented from the first day he got here.”
Bowa said Jeter never cared much about statistics, specifically his own, but there is one numerical fact that makes everyone shake his or her head in disbelief:
The Yankees’ shortstop has played in 2,602 career games. In how many of those games were the Yankees mathematically eliminated from postseason contention?
“I’d say 400,” Bowa guessed.
Phillies minor-league coach Mickey Morandini guessed 150.
The stunning answer is: One.
That number would have gone higher last year, but the ankle injury Jeter started the season with and subsequent leg injuries nagged him right to the finish, limiting him to a career-low 17 games. It was that experience that made him contemplate retirement.
Bowa admired Jeter before he really knew him, and once he got to work with him as manager Joe Torre’s third-base coach in 2006 and 2007, everything he had ever thought about the man was confirmed.
“Joe told me he was going to be the most professional and prepared player I would ever work with,” Bowa said. “He was right. I coached a lot of guys, and a lot of them are very prepared, but he takes it to another level.
“That mold will be thrown away when he leaves the game. It’s going to be a sad day for baseball.”
Hopefully it will be a happy one for Jeter, because the sacrifices he has made have been great. The nearly 26 minutes he spent at the podium Wednesday were strange, because he had to explain that he is a human being with real emotions.
“Are you trying to get me to cry?” Jeter asked when a reporter noticed he was showing little emotion. “Yeah, I’m emotional. It’s kind of difficult right now, because we still have a season to play. It might be different if it was the end of the year. But, yeah, I have feelings. I’m not emotionally stunted. I think I’ve been pretty good at hiding my emotions throughout the years.”
It was all by design. It was his way of coping with a difficult game in an enormous media market that has eaten some players alive.
Jeter has done it his way for more than 18 years, and now he says he wants to do it one more time before taking his place among the greatest players in his storied franchise’s history.