Tonight, Derek Jeter's number 2 will be retired by the New York Yankees - it will be the last single digit number retired by the franchise. Having your number retired by such a storied franchise alongside legends like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig (and many more) is an incredible recognition, but it leaves so much on the table of what his career meant to the modern day professional athlete as the 'ultimate role model'.
Yes, Derek Jeter has first-ballot Hall of Fame stats - 3,465 hits (6th all time & most by any shortstop ever), a .310 batting average, 14 All-Star Selections, 5 Gold Gloves, 5 Silver Slugger Awards, 2 Hank Aaron Awards, 1 Roberto Clemente Award, and 5 World Championships. But those stats do not adequately articulate why we, even as non-Yankees fans (as I am not), still rooted for Derek Jeter.
- 20 Years in One Uniform: Derek Jeter played 20 major league seasons for 1 franchise. Today, you'll be lucky to find a player with that type of longevity who hasn't played for 3-4 franchises. Jeter displayed a unique sense of loyalty that few players today care about. Was he paid well? Absolutely. But, all sports superstars are paid well, yet very few exhibit the loyalty of a Derek Jeter or even a Kobe Bryant.
Those 20 years weren't always a bowl of cherries either - his 5 championships were split between two different regimes - the Joe Torre era and now the Joe Girardi era. And he played for a very hands-on owner that was not shy about blasting his own players and coaches in the media.
- Scandal-Free Career: Derek Jeter entered the Major Leagues in 1996, which was sandwiched between the baseball strike that lost the sport many fans in 1994 and the now infamous 'artificially powered' home run derby year of 1998 where Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both broke the single-season home run record held by Roger Maris. He joined the league at a time when the media's coverage of athletes started to delve far beyond what they did on-the-field.
Derek Jeter played his entire career during an era of scandal-after-scandal in professional sports - Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs), Adultery, Rape, Murders, Multi-million dollar contracts given to players whose playing abilities turned out to be worth nothing, and the list goes on. Yet, Derek Jeter was never so much as implicated in ANY scandal. Did he date a lot of women? Yes, but the difference between Jeter and so many other pro athletes when it comes to having flings with many women is that he was not married - a subtle but important distinction.
- 'The Captain': The modern day sports locker room has become a reporter's paradise for information that is intended to send subtle, yet very public messages about players who can't get along with teammates. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to find a story where Jeter's name was mentioned in the context of negativity from a teammate, nor will you find a story where Jeter publicly criticized a teammate.
Even when A-Rod was going through his steroids scandal, Jeter handled it very delicately by talking, but not taking aim - he provided his views on PEDs, but he did not take it to the point of criticizing A-Rod through public channels. Jeter was known as 'The Captain' for a reason - he was a consummate leader who worked hard at the game, and always let his play on the field do the talking.
It is hard to find really great role models in sports today who perform brilliantly and haven't been involved in some scandal or moved from team-to-team looking for better money. When history looks back at this era of sports, there will be one name that overwhelmingly takes the spotlight - Michael Jordan. And there's nothing wrong with that - Jordan was the most successful and dominant player who hit his peak at that perfect time when sports transcended the boundaries into media, entertainment, and business (e.g., Nike Air Jordan's). But, if Jordan had started his career in 1996 as opposed to 1984, I can guarantee you that his image would have been significantly tarnished by his off-the-field behavior. We saw a glimpse of it with the gambling, but let's face it, that was not Jordan's only vice. Derek Jeter will be as underappreciated 50 years from now as he is today.