The Yankees were in first place when Steinbrenner anointed Jeter, but they had fallen hard after a furious start, losing 17 of 27 games. They had lost in the first round of the playoffs the year before, and lost in the World Series the year before that, and Steinbrenner wanted a jolt. He went with a hunch.
“My gut tells me this would be a good time for Derek Jeter to assume leadership,” Steinbrenner said. “He is a great leader by the way he performs and plays. I told him I want him to be the type of cavalry officer that sits in the saddle. You can’t be a leader unless you sit in the saddle. I think he can.”
We know the rest. Those Yankees quickly resumed their dominance and returned to the World Series, with Jeter starting the famous rally off a tiring Pedro Martinez in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series against Boston. Six years later, Jeter led the Yankees all the way, meaning that when Steinbrenner died, in July 2010, he went out a champion.
Steinbrenner now has the biggest display in Monument Park, his bronze portrait centered on the back wall, his stars forever in his view. A keen understanding of the value of stars, more than anything else, was Steinbrenner’s most important instinct. It sometimes helped the Yankees win, and it always helped them make money.
Jeter’s retirement, after the 2014 season, left the team without its most recognizable face. That likeness will now be preserved with a plaque in the Bronx — another will surely follow in Cooperstown in 2020 — and no Yankee will ever again wear Jeter’s No. 2. The captaincy has also been vacant since he left.
This is not unusual; until Jeter’s appointment, the position had been vacant since Don Mattingly’s final game in 1995. What the team has really struggled to replace is the standing Jeter had as a compelling, must-see player, the kind so vital to sustaining the Yankees’ upscale brand.
For a while, the Yankees still had a certified celebrity on the roster: Alex Rodriguez, whose fame was partly notoriety. The wholesome and humble leading man — with attention-grabbing talent to match — is a rare find, but now the Yankees just might have him.
As they celebrate Jeter, the Yankees are suddenly thriving again, robust in the standings while generating positive buzz. Their record is 21-10. Aaron Judge, their soft-spoken, homegrown rookie slugger, is on the cover of the latest issue of Sports Illustrated. Another young cornerstone, catcher Gary Sanchez, even has his own fragrance, #IAmGary — at least in a playful mock ad produced by the Yankees’ social media team.
We’ll pause here to tactfully remind you that the Mets — whose young pitching stars have repeatedly embarrassed them this season — are not quite as adept at social media. (Just ask catcher Kevin Plawecki.) After two postseason appearances in a row, the Mets may be reassuming their secondary position in the city’s baseball hierarchy.
Jeter solidified the status of the two teams in 2000, as the most valuable player of the crosstown World Series. It could not have been anyone else. The Yankees were his team, and that was his stage. Nobody else seemed made for it in quite the same way.
The Mets had one sliver of hope in that Series, when they grabbed Game 3 after the Yankees had won twice. Then Jeter belted the very first pitch of Game 4 for a home run, and the next night, the Yankees were champions. When Jeter doused his boss in the boozy postgame celebration, Steinbrenner played along.
“He’s allowed,” Steinbrenner said.
Now, Jeter hopes to follow Steinbrenner’s example and buy a stake in a team of his own. He is part of a group, with the former Florida governor Jeb Bush, trying to arrange financing to buy the Miami Marlins. Doing so would fulfill a well-known ambition for Jeter, although it would represent something new.
Jeter has never worked for another organization, spending two decades in uniform for the Yankees, who drafted him in the first round in 1992. So who do you think happens to be in town this weekend? The Houston Astros, the first team that passed on him.
Four more teams let Jeter go by: the Cleveland Indians, the Montreal Expos (now the Washington Nationals), the Baltimore Orioles and the Cincinnati Reds. None of those teams have won the World Series since.
Call it the Curse of the Captain, a No. 2 who should have been No. 1.