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Tuesday, May 7, 2013
True story

By Howard Bryant
ESPN The Magazine

Bryant Illo
Jeter's intangibles and leadership are what make him a Hall of Famer.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's May 13, 15th Anniversary issue, Mag 15. Subscribe today!

THE MAGIC OF baseball will always live in the storytelling -- the grandeur of Ruth, the Midwestern identification with Musial, the unbreakable Robinson and the complex defiance and moral ambiguity of Bonds. It's what gives life to the statistics. Unfortunately, in the age of Moneyball and fantasy leagues, the numbers have been detached from, and become more important than, the players.

All but one.

The Yankees' Derek Jeter has defied the impact of the two most influential elements of his time: the institutional shift toward quantitative analysis and the cynical lust for home runs, fueled by performance-enhancing drugs. For now, he's stuck at 3,304 hits, sidelined until after the All-Star break with an ankle injury. But with Jeter, the visual has always been better than the numerical -- and there's never been a better time to appreciate that than in his absence, which only underscores his longevity.

For years, most stats guys never liked him as much as his All-Star rivals at shortstop: Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra and Miguel Tejada. Jeter, now 38, has outlasted them all at the position and created a more compelling legacy. (Rodriguez and Tejada will always be drug-tainted, and Jeter likely will finish with twice as many hits as Garciaparra's 1,747.)

Jeter most clearly defined his essence on separate occasions in the 2001 ALDS against the A's. Moment One was, of course, the Flip in Game 3, the 1-0 classic in Oakland that began the Yankees' successful comeback from two games down. Blame Jeremy Giambi for not sliding or Oakland's bats for not getting that big hit; credit Mike Mussina for keeping the A's scoreless. But while the scorebook registers Jeter's play as simply an out -- albeit one that was 9-to-6-to-2 -- it demoralized the A's.

The second defining moment came two nights later, with the A's spent, wondering as the noise cascaded on them just how they were here playing a deciding Game 5 at Yankee Stadium, how they had let the series slip away. Terrence Long hit a foul ball along the third base line that Jeter chased and caught, spilling into the stands. It was, again, just another out, F6, but on the field it was a referendum of championship toughness. The Yankees had it. The A's didn't.

That intangibles notion is murky, of course, and complicated. Jeter played in an era when everyone was suspected of PED use. For those choosing to believe the shortstop that he was, is and always has been a clean ballplayer, the monument to his fidelity and greatness lies in his old-school bona fides. Jeter, along with possibly Ken Griffey Jr., is the only player in the modern game whose iconic moments were generated by all five tools -- not just by standing in the batter's box and hitting another home run in a game that encouraged nothing but.

Like Jackie Robinson, Jeter is pure baseball. He will be remembered for his baserunning (the clever beating of the shift by swiping third base that he made routine). He will be equally celebrated for his fielding and throwing. (Even though he doesn't rank anywhere near the top 1,000 in career defensive WAR, you can't deny the Flip, the nailing of Arizona's Danny Bautista at third in the 2001 World Series or the flying leap into the crowd against the Red Sox in the summer of '04.) And his hitting consistency is close to unmatched. (His injury likely will make his quest for 4,000 hits unsuccessful, but he is in range to catch Henry Aaron at 3,771 for third all time.) Not that he couldn't power the ball out of the ballpark too -- there was the first-pitch leadoff home run in Game 4 of the 2000 Series when the Mets had won the night before, and the two-out, full-count walk-off home run the following year in Game 4 against Arizona.

As if that wasn't enough, there's also the imprint he's had on the Yankees, the first homegrown star to lead the franchise to the World Series since Mickey Mantle. (1977-78 belonged to Reggie, not Munson.) He became the signature player for the game's signature team when it returned to power, and in an era of drugs and cynicism and ruined reputations, he never embarrassed the sport, his team or, most important, his family name.

There is no metric for that. Just a magical story.

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