Derek Jeter and the Yankees visit the Tigers for a series beginning Tuesday. It will be the final regular-season games at Comerica Park for Jeter, who grew up in Kalamazoo. (Jim McIsaac / Getty Images)
The trips were 142 miles, due east. From Kalamazoo to Tiger Stadium. The kid on board with his dad.
It was the same for all of us growing up in America. A wondrous day at the ballpark. We all had our dreams, our fantasies.
But for this kid it became different. He carried his own ambitions to the old ballpark in downtown Detroit — and they came true.
“I had a lot of good memories of this place when I was growing up,” the kid said once in a Detroit News article commemorating the last game in Tiger Stadium in 1999.
We all know that kid.
His name is Derek Jeter.
Derek Jeter is 40 years old now. And he is playing his final season in the major leagues. His name is listed among the immortals from all the 138 seasons of Major League Baseball.
A few weeks ago, Jeter achieved another milestone with the Yankees. He surpassed Honus Wagner, then Cap Anson for sixth place on baseball’s cherished all-time hits list.
The five names above his are Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Tris Speaker, in order. All are immortals. All but the barred Rose were no-brainer lopsided selections to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
As was Honus Wagner.
A chance meeting
Honus Wagner’s reputation as the greatest shortstop in the history of Major League Baseball was established some 110 years ago. Yarns about Wagner carried along through the generations. How well he hit — 3,420 hits dating to the 19th century, a career batting average of .329 playing shortstop, mostly for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Eight National League batting championships. Defeating Cobb and the Tigers in the 1909 World Series.
And the stories continued about how smoothly Wagner played in the field, with ham-sized hands and a pancake-flat leather glove; tales about his range left and right, on bowed legs.
The stories were passed on to me by my father and my uncles, who took me to my early ballgames.
I see Derek Jeter now — I write about him now — and part of my imagination fixes onto Honus Wagner.
One of those images flashed back Saturday morning.
I was eight. An uncle took me to my first ballgame — at New York’s Polo Grounds, the New York Giants versus the Pirates. It was 78 years ago, 1936. At the Polo Grounds spectators were required to exit the stands and walk across the outfield to the street. We were clogged with the players and the coaches, trekking with the people, en route to their clubhouses in center field.
“There’s Hans Wagner,” said my uncle.
I looked up, right next to me, and there was this craggy, ancient gentleman, walking toward the clubhouse — wobbling, actually – on his bowed legs toward the Pirates’ clubhouse. He was in a Pittsburgh uniform, a coach.
His face was full of wrinkles. I thought he looked a little like Santa Claus.
Of course, he was 62.
He looked down. His face glowed.
And Honus Wagner smiled at me.
It is my only clear memory of my first ballgame.
Beyond the numbers
With all the laurels, with all the tributes, with all the recollections, with the five World Series championships in his collection, with all the popularity, national adoration and marketing, Derek Jeter has been the face of Major League Baseball these past 20 years. Through the end of the 20th century and the first 14 years of the 21st. Through the millennial celebrations.
He has gathered more hits than Wagner; more hits than Babe Ruth, more hits than Lou Gehrig; more hits than Mickey Mantle. More than any of the Yankees before him.
This week, Derek Jeter plays his final games in his home state — Michigan.
He has earned cheers and applause at Comerica Park.
Jeter was not born in Michigan — he is a New Jersey native — but he lived in Kalamazoo from age four until he went off to the Yankees. He spent his boyhood summer vacations with his grandparents in New Jersey, rooting for the Yankees. Then he returned home to Michigan. He played baseball and basketball for Kalamazoo Central, earning all-state recognition; he spent a term at the University of Michigan. He still wears Michigan regalia, Wolverines T-shirts and the like.
For some reason, incomprehensible, he has been booed by some through the years at Comerica Park. Loud, vocal.
And for some curious reason the Sabremetricians do not regard Jeter as much among all shortstops. They dip from the clouds with their nebulous WAR statistic, that vague Wins Above Replacement melody for their ideas of an athlete’s worth.
To add to the blur there are two Internet versions of WAR — Baseball Reference’s concept disputed by FanGraphs’ melting-pot listings. FanGraphs has Jeter at No. 3 with a WAR of 73.8, according to my Google search. Baseball Reference lists Derek as No. 7 at 67.6, one point ahead of the shortstop he used to watch when he traveled from Kalamazoo to Tiger Stadium.
Jeter and Trammell, getting a bit of recognition, two old-fashioned ballplayers in a modern era. Wonders Are Recognized — my version of WAR and Sabremetrics.
A bit, not a lot. The Sabremetrics guys really do see Jeter as overrated. And Jeter obviously agrees their form of statistics is overrated, according to a recent piece in the New York Post. No sacrifice bunts included; value attached to attempting to advance a runner with a grounder. All of which Jeter called the “winning approach.”
“It’s been lost since they started coming up with all these formulas,” Jeter said in the article in the Post.
Both Baseball Reference and FanGraphs rank Wagner far ahead among the all-time shortstops although he played 100 years before the Sabremetrics era. Cal Ripken ranked second among all the shortstops back into ancient baseball times in both WAR tabulations.
I guess an ironman streak gets factored into WAR, even if winning five World Series doesn’t.
I was briefly inclined to get carried away and declare that Jeter is the greatest shortstop in baseball history now that he has vaulted above Wagner.
But Halt. Bowlegged Honus Wagner is forever No. 1.
Jeter might be No. 2, though.
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive column Saturdays at detroitnews.com.