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The Greatest Athlete: “Is Derek Jeter Such a Bad Defender That He’s a Bad Player?”

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Arthur Ashe at Forest Hills, 1975.  

Wulf: Here’s one simple matter of arithmetic for Derek Jeter. More Yankee fans have seen Derek Jeter than any athlete in New York history. He has played for a higher total of attendance than Ruth or Gehrig or DiMaggio or any of those guys. I mean, he’s played full houses for most of his career. The greatest compliment I can payJeter is that when I stacked him up against Joe DiMaggio, I went with Jeter. In some ways they embody the same kind of qualities that you love in a baseball player, but Jeter’s done it longer, and he’s been seen by more people.

Leitch: So we should start narrowing this down. It sounds like Babe, Gehrig, Mays, and Jeter are our final four. All baseball guys. So who’s your pick?

Leiter: For athleticism, I’d love to put Derek. But just when I think of the other greats, I’d have to say Willie Mays was the greatest New York athlete, even though he spent a period of time away from New York. When I talk to contemporaries of his, without a doubt Willie Mays is hanging off their tongues. I don’t know if you could say that about Derek. It was a period of time that he was beyond new York baseball or New York sports and I think the embodiment of the guy—you know, playing stick ball in Harlem—the absolute enmeshed community. I would like to say Willie Mays, reluctantly, but if I could do four, his name is Babe Mays Gehrig Jeter.

Wulf: I actually feel sheepish since we’re sitting on top of the Jackie Robinson Museum [Ed. note: The museum is in the same building as New York magazine’s offices, where this discussion was held.], but It’s pretty clear it’s a Yankee. I’m a Mets fan—I’m allergic to things Yankee. But these Yankees stand for the championships, for the excellence, for the way they carry themselves. So it really came down to Ruth or Gehrig or Jeter and because I weighed heavily the New Yorkiness of these athletes, I’m going with Gehrig. But obviously all three are great picks.

Sheehan: I’m closer to changing the vote I walked in here with than I thought I would be, and it’s mostly because of the arguments for Derek Jeter and Lou Gehrig. The fact that Gehrig spent his whole life here carries a lot of sway with me, though I think there’s something to be said for doing it in the modern era, the way Derek Jeter did. But Derek Jeter has never been considered the very best player in the game by his peers. I go back to the fact that Babe Ruth was the greatest pitcher in baseball and changed the game as a hitter. New York is the greatest city in the world, and the greatest New York athlete should be the greatest something, and Babe Ruth is the greatest baseball player who ever lived. Among those four—Ruth, Gehrig, Jeter, Mays—I don’t think there’s a wrong answer.

Leitch: Well, we have a vote for Mays, one for Gehrig, and one for Ruth. I’m persuaded by Joe’s argument: The only person we’ve talked about who can be called the greatest player in their sport is Ruth. And, as we’ve established, New York is about the best. Even if Al thinks he was a little chubby.

Sheehan: By the way? I’m brokenhearted the name Don Mattingly didn’t come up.

Leiter: I know.


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