A couple of months from now, Derek Jeter is going to become the first Yankee to ever reach the 3,000 hit milestone. That’s going to lead to a whole new round of retrospectives and analysis pieces on the life and career of the Yankee captain.
Well, the first one’s already out. “Derek Jeter: From The Pages of The New York Times” is a collection of articles about Jeter from… the pages of the New York Times. It also includes a new essay from the Times’ national baseball writer, Tyler Kepner.
He spoke to us about Jeter’s place in history, the upcoming baseball season and where to get the best clam chowder in a bread bowl.
SCP: Why do a Jeter retrospective now? While his career has clearly entered the home stretch, it’s far from over and he’s got some major milestones right around the corner.
TK: From a publisher’s standpoint, Jeter is very marketable right now – his jersey is the No. 1 seller of all major league players, and he’s closing in on 3,000 hits. So I think they believed it would appeal to people right now, and be comprehensive enough to include five championships and his standing as the team’s career hits leader.
SCP: Along the same lines, your opening essay seems very of the moment. Are you concerned how that might play for readers five, ten or twenty years down the line?
TK: I tried to give it a kind of timeless quality, and I think it will hold up over the years. But nobody’s hiding the fact that this is a book published in 2011, so whoever looks at the book in the future will hopefully understand it in that context.
SCP: As far as I’m concerned, the list of all time Yankees goes Ruth, Mantle, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Jeter. What’s your list look like? Is there anything Derek Jeter can do to move up that list or even end up at number 1?
TK: I’ve thought about this, and it’s really hard to put anyone else in the top four besides Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle. But Jeter does have more hits than anyone, and more championships with the Yankees than Ruth. So he’s right up there, with Mariano Rivera very close behind. You could argue Rivera over Jeter, because Rivera is without question the best at his role, by far, in his era, and probably of all-time. But Jeter, as an everyday player, has a more important role, and is status as captain and the unofficial face of the Yankees’ brand carries extra meaning.
SCP: What’s your favorite personal Jeter anecdote? His image seems to be classy and honest, but really boring. Is that what it’s like in the clubhouse as well?
TK: I wouldn’t call him boring. He’s very approachable and courteous, looks you in the eye, and he’s patient. He’s also got a good sense of humor. One time in Chicago a few of the beat writers and I were talking by Jeter’s locker, and they mentioned to Jeter that I had four kids. He knew I was a parent but didn’t know I had four kids, and it really stunned him. “You and I are the same age, right?” he said. “Yeah, pretty much,” I answered. He smiled, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Well, we sure chose different paths, didn’t we, buddy?” Yes, we sure did.
SCP: I think most people agree that Derek Jeter won’t end his career as a Shortstop. A lot of the talk has him eventually moving to center field. But the Yankees have a relatively young and talented centerfielder in Curtis Granderson. Does all this long term talk about Jeter eventually moving out of the infield have any impact on Granderson?
TK: I don’t think Jeter will ever move to the outfield. Asking a career infielder to transition to the outfield in his late 30s, and learn all those skills and movements, is probably not fair to the player. There’s a lot of ground to cover (especially in center, obviously), and at that age his range would be diminished. I expect if he moves anywhere, it would be to third base if/when Alex Rodriguez becomes the DH.
SCP: Jeter, Bernie, Pettitte, Posado, Rivera, O’Neill, TIno. Which numbers do you think will be retired?
TK: Definitely Jeter, Bernie and Rivera. (And Torre.) Not Tino. Possibly O’Neill, Posada and Pettitte, although 21 and 46 have been issued briefly since (21 to LaTroy Hawkins, 46 to Donovan Osborne). I suspect that by the time A-Rod is done, he will have put up so many impressive numbers as a Yankee, with at least one championship, that no one will wear #13 again. The Yankees are a pretty sentimental organization, but the number retiring has slowed in recent years, and if you notice they haven’t even retired Goose Gossage’s #46, and he’s in the Hall with a Yankee cap.
SCP: Moving on to the 2011 season, give me a couple of surprises you expect to see. What team may come out of nowhere to contend? What apparent contender will flop? Are there any players you expect to break out?
TK: I’m writing about some of that stuff in the Times on Sunday. Don’t want to give it away before then, sorry!
SCP: What was the most overrated move of the offseason? Underrated?
TK: The Phillies’ acquisition of Cliff Lee was a real coup, no doubt. Their rotation is amazing. But pitching didn’t keep them from winning the NL pennant last season, it was a lack of clutch hitting in the NLCS. In the end, the loss of Jayson Werth probably balances the addition of Lee in terms of wins and losses. It’s asking a lot to expect them to win more than the 97 games they won last year.
As for underrated moves, I think the Marlins did very well to get John Buck on a three-year contract, and I thought they got a pretty good return on the Dan Uggla trade (Omar Infante and Mike Dunn).
SCP: What’s your day to day like during the season? How often do you get to sleep in your own bed?Do baseball writers get to take days off during the season? And what’s it like during the winter?
TK: As the national writer, every week is different, and that’s been fun. (This is my second year on the national beat after 8 on the Yankees beat and 2 on the Mets beat.) I make more trips than I did as a beat writer, but they’re usually shorter, since I don’t have to stay in each town for three or four days at a time. I get some more flexibility in determining my schedule, but I think it’s really important to travel in order to cover baseball comprehensively. I try not to ignore any team, and I think I’ve managed to pay attention to all of them. They do try to give me two days off every week, though it doesn’t always work out that way. The winter time is still busy because readers always want to know what moves are being made and what it all means.
SCP: Who’s the best baseball writer out there right now? Who’s your favorite all time? Are there any colleagues that you were nervous to meet the first time you ran into them?
TK: I was nervous when I met and interviewed Vin Scully last summer, though we are only colleagues in the sense that we both work in the press box. Vin Scully is as close to a god as there is in all of sports, but he made me feel instantly at ease; he is truly a national treasure.
No writer has helped me more over the last two decades than Jayson Stark, who inspired me to become a sports writer in the first place by showing me, through his writing, how much fun this profession could be. I wrote him a letter when I was 14 and publishing a small magazine in the Philadelphia suburbs, and reading his reply letter still ranks as one of the greatest thrills of my career. You asked who’s the best, and Jayson’s my answer. I try not to miss anything written by Buster Olney, Tom Verducci, Dave Sheinin, Lee Jenkins, Dan Shaughnessy and my colleagues George Vecsey, Ben Shpigel and Dave Waldstein – all are exceptional, and there are many, many more I could list. And, of course, one writer is in a category all his own: the great Roger Angell, an extraordinary man and the most graceful baseball writer who ever lived.
SCP: Which stadium do you enjoy visiting most? Which one has the best food in the press box?
TK: My favorite ballparks to visit are Seattle and San Francisco. Great cities, clear scoreboards, smart, passionate fans, outstanding attention to detail, a little chill in the air. But I really enjoy almost every stadium. If I’m not on deadline, I like to walk around and get a feel for the place, see the different sightlines, find out what special things they have for the fans and try to capture the vibe. As for ease of covering a game, in terms of the working environment, it’s hard to get any better than Anaheim or Tampa Bay. But, again, most ballparks are great – San Diego, Milwaukee, Philly, Pittsburgh, Minnesota. And Fenway, Wrigley and Dodger Stadium are special for the history.
The best press box meal is at the new Yankee Stadium. So many choices, all very good. For in-game snacks, the ice cream in Philly is famous among the media, and I’m also a big fan of the Animal Crackers and Chessman cookies in the press box in Denver. If I’m stepping outside the press box, I love the clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl in San Francisco and the turkey platter at Boog’s BBQ Pit in Baltimore. (And I still miss the omelet station before day games at the press box in Montreal.)