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It is all about pitchers and catchers until Derek Jeter takes the mic Wednesday to give the hows and whys on his pending retirement, making this as good a time as any to measure the captain against the greatest pitcher (Mariano Rivera) and the greatest catcher (Yogi Berra) in New York Yankees history.
In most rankings of the franchise's all-timers, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle represent an untouchable fab four, the cornerstones of Yankees mythology. Jeter has no place at their table, and there is no shame in that. But he does belong in the sports-bar debate over who should occupy the 5-hole, a debate that includes his dear friend, Rivera, whose farewell tour likely inspired the shortstop to book one of his own.
Comparing Rivera to Jeter is a little like comparing Adam Vinatieri to Tom Brady. There's no denying the kicker's invaluable role in helping New England win three Super Bowls in four years way back when, but the quarterback touched the ball on nearly every offensive play from scrimmage in building the NFL's last true dynasty.
Rivera, the elite specialist, played in almost 1,500 fewer games than Jeter, the elite full-timer, over virtually the same period, and averaged 1.15 innings per appearance. They were both irreplaceable figures in their five championship runs, but the shortstop gets the slight nod over the closer because of the staggering disparity between their actual time on the field.
So that leaves us with a fun Jeter vs. Berra faceoff for a place among the top five Yanks. If Jeter considered Joe Torre something of a second father, he seemed to regard Yogi as his favorite uncle. Theirs has been a playful relationship, with Berra teasing Jeter about his record 10 championship rings, and with Jeter teasing Berra about the fact that his teams never had to navigate a division series or an championship series on the way to the World Series.
"And I tell Jeter he was born at the wrong time," Yogi said one spring training day in 2010.
"If we went straight to the World Series every time we won our division," Jeter said that same day, "we would've had so many chances. So it's a lot harder now, definitely. I was just joking with Yogi the other day that some of his don't count. But Yogi's not buying it."
|Derek Jeter (five rings) and Yogi Berra (10 rings) have long had a playful back-and-forth about who won more on the field -- and who had the harder road to their titles.|
Nor do some fans buy the argument that Jeter was the superior player. Berra won three regular-season MVP awards, or three more than Jeter won (though the shortstop probably should've taken the award in 2006), and the catcher struck out a mere 414 times in his career, or 1,339 fewer times than Jeter, the franchise's unfortunate leader in that category. In fact, Berra never had a 40-strikeout season (he had a remarkable 12 whiffs in 597 at-bats in 1950); Jeter had nine seasons of at least 100 strikeouts. Berra also wins on the home run (102 more in 3,059 fewer at-bats), RBI, and slugging-percentage fronts, and was better defensively at his position than Jeter was at his.
But the captain's counterpoints are strong, not that he would ever state them for public consumption. Jeter has 1,166 more hits, 701 more runs, 318 more steals and 204 more doubles than Berra, and owns a sizable advantage in batting average (.312 to .285), on-base percentage (.381 to .348) and in the sabermetric measurement of wins above replacement (71.6 to 59.3, according to Baseball-Reference.com). In the postseason, Jeter has the better batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
Jeter was also the signature player of his era, something Berra was not. Of course, if Jeter played during the back end of DiMaggio's prime and through the heart of Mantle's, he wouldn't have been the signature Yankee of his day, either.
This is why Jeter vs. Berra is such a tough one to call. For guidance, and since I never saw the 88-year-old Berra play live, I sought counsel from a couple of fans old enough to have watched Yogi in his prime. My father-in-law, Jack, hemmed and hawed some before going on about Jeter's famous flip play against Oakland in 2001. "The shortstop is just not supposed to be there," he said. "It's very close, but I have to go with Jeter."
My father, Tom, called it a toss-up. "Yogi was a great Yankee, and he played a special position," he said. "Jeter's the popular choice now because he's still playing, but 10 years from now, when people are looking at both of them in the past, it might be a different story."
In the name of balance, since I wrote a book on Jeter, I asked for a ruling from someone who wrote a book on Berra. New York Times sports columnist Harvey Araton, author of "Driving Mr. Yogi," an appreciation of the cross-generational bond between Berra and former Yankees ace Ron Guidry, responded to the Jeter-or-Yogi question this way:
"Both players rank very high in immeasurable intangibles and have played important leadership positions at catcher and short. But having watched and covered Jeter's Yankees and then placing him in the context of the era -- sullied as it's been by performance-enhancing drugs -- I'd have to pick Jeter as the player of greater impact.
"For one thing, he is the face of this Yankee generation while Berra was never that player for his time. On top of that, it can be argued that Jeter, while not alone, has also been the face on the firewall that protected what was left of the sport's credibility and the forces that have come close to completely destroying it. You hear people say, 'If I ever found out that Jeter was doing it too, that would be it, I would never watch baseball again.' Across the decades, there have been few singular presences like that in any team sport. Jordan, Gretzky ... and?"
But a few years ago, ESPN New York rated Berra (at No. 6) and Rivera (at No. 5) ahead of Jeter (at No. 7) on its list of the 50 greatest Yankees. I had Jeter fifth, and still think he belongs in the first open spot after the locked-in Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle. Though Jeter and Berra own a nearly identical career OPS, the captain's sheer volume of hits (the franchise's all-time leader by a Secretariat margin) and runs (he needs 84 to supplant Ruth as the franchise's all-time leader), his superior postseason numbers, and his enduring face-of-the-franchise relevance give him the same kind of razor-thin edge over Berra that he has over Rivera.
In the end, it's all a matter of opinion and personal preference, nothing more. Whitey Ford, another top-10 Yankee and the best pitcher Berra ever caught, said Monday evening he couldn't choose between his catcher and Jeter. "They're both great, both Hall of Famers," Ford said. "I couldn't give a slight edge to anyone; I'd just be making it up."
Ford's former teammate, Mel Stottlemyre, who debuted with the Yankees the year after Berra left and who observed Jeter from the dugout rail as Joe Torre's pitching coach, agreed that it was too difficult a task to separate Yogi and Jeter. "But this much is clear," Stottlemyre said. "If Yogi is five, then Jeter has to be six. And if Jeter is five, then Yogi has to be six."
David Kaplan, director of the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center on the campus of Montclair State University, and a longtime friend of Berra's, offered this take on the retired catcher and the soon-to-be retired shortstop:
"Considering their different eras and positions they played, who's to say who's greater? What I will say is their similarities are really striking. Both had tremendous impact on their teams. Yogi coaxed terrific performances from pedestrian pitchers. Jeter instills a winning confidence by his presence. Both were quiet leaders, remarkable in the clutch, fierce competitors, great sportsmen.
"Both respect the game and the Yankee tradition like few others, and both are beloved as any sports figure you'll ever see. Jeter vs. Yogi? They're both beautiful."
Kaplan visited with Berra on Sunday and asked him if he thought he was a better player than Jeter, or vice versa. He said Yogi responded only with what Kaplan called "sort of a bemused shrug," but was far more emphatic when asked if he thought Jeter did the right thing in declaring that 2014 will be his final season.
As manager of the Mets in 1972, Berra didn't want to trade for a 41-year-old Willie Mays, and the team acquired him anyway, before Mays proved to be exactly what Yogi feared he'd be -- a severely diminished star. Perhaps that experience shaped Berra's answer to Kaplan about Jeter's planned exit.
"He should retire," Berra said.
Yes, Derek Jeter should retire. At the end of the 2014 season, No. 2 should walk away as No. 5 on the list of all-time Yankees greats.