The commercialization of new New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius is in full swing. We get it. Derek Jeter was a subpar defender. We’re not just talking about the latter years of his career when he was slowed by injury and age. For the bulk of his time as the Yankees’ centerpiece at shortstop, he was lacking in range and made up for that with flashiness and a passive aggressiveness with anyone who dared suggest he move to another position or decided it was a good idea to point out the statistical facts regarding his deficiencies. For every jump-throw, sublime style at running into short left field for popups, and dives into the stands, Jeter’s supposed “all-around” game, Gold Gloves and promotion for having defensive prowess was known to be inaccurate by those who weren’t hypnotized by his star status.
Whether it was a byproduct from fan anger at the mere suggestion he wasn’t what he was portrayed to be; the media trying to stay on Jeter’s good side; teammates, coaches and front office people pointing out unseen factors and intangibles, the truth hovers in the mist. Jeter might not have been what his myth makers say he was as an all-around player, but he did make up for it with trustworthiness in big spots and coolness knowing that nervousness wouldn’t spur him to boot a grounder in a tie game in the eighth inning of game six of the the World Series with runners on first and third. His intelligence and awareness were valuable even if his range wasn’t.
Now that he’s retired and there isn’t the need to avoid his famous freeze-out tactic for those who dared cross him, there’s not only a baseball-wide honesty about his shortcomings, but even the Yankees seem somewhat relieved that they’re no longer forced to walk gingerly around their captain, placating and humoring him for the sake of the greater good. Given the tumultuous relationship between he and Jeter as frenemies, it’s no surprise that Alex Rodriguez is touting Gregorius’s range with undisguised awe. It was A-Rod who moved to third base when he was traded to the Yankees in 2004 to accommodate Jeter’s status and ego even though it was known by one and all that A-Rod wasn’t just a little bit better as a defensive shortstop, but a lot better. It was A-Rod who was characterized as the opposite of Jeter in terms of everything from on-field professionalism to off-field embarrassments. The image of Jeter as everything a player and person should aspire to be with A-Rod as the definition of someone who screwed it all up still chafes A-Rod to the point that he’s taking these small, opaque potshots. There’s a double entendre there with A-Rod still playing and Jeter’s looming presence nothing more than a shadow. This is no shock. What’s odd is how it’s extended to other players who are noting Gregorius’s range.
Mark Teixeira and Chase Headley have mentioned it along with A-Rod and the media is running with it. In part, it’s boosting the perception of the player who has the thankless job of replacing Jeter and doesn’t have the resume to guarantee a level of production that he’ll be able to do it. In dual part, it’s seemingly to take subtle shots at Jeter.
It’s natural for there to be a certain amount of jealousy to the sway that Jeter had with the Yankees, the media and the public. This was compounded when his play didn’t warrant the myth. As the season wound down, it’s unavoidable that the veterans who had to endure the endless, nauseating subservience in every…single…park they went to last season would tire of it in rhetoric and reality. Jeter absolutely deserved to be feted, but the peer pressure that was exerted turned it into a case of diminishing returns. Teammates standing on the top step of the dugout, having to answer questions about what Jeter meant to them, trying to find ways to make platitudes sound fresh in describing his importance even if he was a minuscule percentage of what he once was became an integral part of their day even if they didn’t want to be doing it. It has a draining effect on those who have their own issues to worry about.
Obviously a faction in the Yankees clubhouse – extending beyond the obvious one, A-Rod – are glad that Jeter’s gone even if they can’t say it if they value their future in pinstripes. It’s a fact that the baseball people in the front office are happy he’s gone whether Gregorius is the long-term answer or not. The exhaustion from the maudlin sentimentality notwithstanding, it’s morphed from them sticking to the script as to Jeter’s greatness to pointing out what Jeter wasn’t at the end while simultaneously saying how Gregorius’s range is so far superior to his predecessor.
Jeter is at fault for a large portion of this. For all the class he exhibited in personifying what the Yankees claim they should be, he was a party to the shameless sale of all things Jeter in a gauche display of greed. He acted as if the mere suggestion that he move to another position was an insult to his manhood when it might have been better for the team had he willingly done so. The Yankees created the spectacle and amplified it to sell tickets, gear, souvenirs and mementos in a down year that was also a likely portent to a down cycle for the club.
Although Gregorius’s range is much better than Jeter’s, that’s not the biggest compliment in the world. At the end of his career Jeter was essentially a statue whose range was limited to how far he could fall to the left or right. At the height of his career, it wasn’t all that good either. Placing Jeter in the pantheon of Yankees greats like Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle was always preposterous. Making attempts to trivialize and diminish what he accomplished because he wasn’t on their level is equally preposterous.
Now that he’s gone, there’s an increased freedom to point out his negatives. No matter where you land on the subject of whether or not Jeter was overblown, overrated and that his narrative was largely scripted with an end in mind, he doesn’t deserve to be criticized in comparison to the 25-year-old kid who’s been imported to replace him.
Gregorius has never even played a full season as a regular in the majors. In fact, there’s a legitimate chance that he’ll end up back in the minors at some point this season. Jeter was a great player in his own right and he won. For all his issues, Jeter wouldn’t panic in a big moment and he could actually hit. Will Gregorius panic? Can he hit? Physical tools are fine, but it’s implementing those tools that defines a career. Jeter maximized and surpassed his ability. He stayed out of compromising situations and never embarrassed himself, his club or baseball in general. He’s a rarity. Replacing him isn’t so simple and in spite of the eye-rolling and exasperated sighs the supplication of him elicited, he deserves better than to be negatively compared to Gregorius or any other player they find to take his place.