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Derek Jeter: A Symbol Wrapped In An Enigma Wrapped In Greatness

With his 3,000th hit now in the record books, Derek Jeter has cemented his place with the immortals. We already knew he was heading to Cooperstown, but this milestone pretty much makes things official. And on Saturday he reminded us how good it is to be Derek Jeter, with a perfect five-for-five day with a home run and the game-winning RBI. His greatness has been with us for a decade and a half now, but the Yankee shortstop, as bland as he likes to present himself, is a polarizing force with baseball fans around the country. He's noncontroversial, he's harmless yet he's also hated. Somehow one of the classiest people associated with the New York Yankees became the face of the Evil Empire. Of course, he's also loved, but mainly by Yankee fans (though with his diminishing skills, even a faction of that group is turning on him). And you could add fans that just like to see the game played by someone who hustles and has a high baseball IQ to the list of people who admire him.

The Yankee shortstop is somewhat of an enigma, though. There's almost something Joe DiMaggio-like to him. He's guarded, he's private, he talks in clichés and is as bland as can be, yet he dates movie stars, films countless commercials and is an icon. He's lauded for his leadership skills and was given one of the great honors in sports by being named captain of the Yankees, yet controversies in the clubhouse, whether they involved Alex Rodriguez or PEDs, have festered while he remained silent. He's revered for the intangibles he brings to the game, yet he's reviled for those same intangibles. He has an ethereal hold on traditionalists who don't view statistics in awe, yet his stats are filled with gold. He's a team-first, play-the-game-the-right-way guy, yet after already raking in $180 million, he tried to bleed every cent out of the Yankees that he could (when Paul O'Neill signed his last contract, didn't he essentially tell the Yankees that he didn't want to go anywhere else and if they just made him a fair offer he would sign it?). He's won Gold Gloves, yet his defense is scoffed at.

Part of the Jeter Sucks contingent theorizes that playing for the Yankees beefs up his reputation and myth. He's overrated, they claim. Just look at his famous play against Oakland in the 2001 playoffs. When he mysteriously arrived in foul territory to flip the ball to Jorge Posada who tagged out a non-sliding Jeremy Giambi, everyone asked, "Why was he even there?" Or maybe they said, "Only Derek Jeter would think to go there." While it was, of course, a tremendous athletic play, the reason he was in that spot wasn't very mysterious at all. It was a set play the Yankees had used before. They tried it against the New York Mets earlier that season, but without quite the same success. As right fielder Shane Spencer threw the ball into a vacant second base and the ball rolled into no-man's-land, Met runners ran around the bases as Jeter stood by the foul line near home plate, and everyone wondered, "What's he doing there?" But in the playoffs it worked. And the play became legend. Would Jeter be viewed in the same light if he was a Cincinnati Red or played for the Kansas City Royals? Of course, once he qualified for free agency, he most likely would have bolted for the Yankees anyway.

Whether Jeter's status has been inflated due to playing in the Bronx or the value he adds to his team doing things that don't show up in a box score has been overblown, if we do take a quick glance at the back of his baseball card, his "tangibles" prove one thing: He's a great baseball player. His myth and fans' obsession with labeling him overrated may have overshadowed his actual accomplishments. He has 3,003 hits, a .313/.383/.450 line (.833 OPS), 1,727 runs, 481 doubles, 62 triples, 237 home runs, 1,159 RBIs, 331 stolen bases, a WAR of 70.4 and his OPS+ is 118. And on top of those numbers, out on the field, Jeter always does the right thing. He throws to the right base, he's one of the best base runners around and he won't think twice about diving into the stands to make a play. And he's as clutch as clutch can be, not to mention thriving in the big moment, as we saw on Saturday.

Would the Yankees have won those five World Series titles with someone else manning the shortstop position? Maybe. But we'll never know because it was Jeter standing there and not someone else. He was the one who did it, not some vague replacement player. Maybe his Yankee-ness has made him overrated. But he was so irrationally overrated that he became underrated. And now he's easing into the twilight of his career, moving up on all-time lists while his OPS slides down to mediocre levels.

He's overrated. He's underrated. He's beloved. He's loathed. He's an icon. He's boring. He's a leader. He can hold a grudge with the best of them. Jeter is more than just a player. He's a symbol of Yankee pride. He's a symbol of the Evil Empire. He's the symbol of all things old-fashioned and intangible. Surely, hatred of the Yankees has colored fans' opinion of him, but all the "Derek Jeter Sucks" chants in the world don't make them true. He doesn't suck. In fact, he's been great. And collecting 3,000 hits is tangible proof. Just look it up.