Just a Bit Outside: On Derek Jeter and the retirement of number two

by Sam Stockton | 5/15/17 2:20am

Yesterday, on Sunday Night Baseball, the New York Yankees retired Derek Jeter’s number two, ensuring that the legacy of its soon-to-be Hall of Fame shortstop does not soon fade — as if anyone could possibly forget that career — and that no Yankee will wear a single-digit jersey again. (One and three through nine are also retired. If you want to take a journey through the history of baseball, try to remember who wore each of those jerseys.)

“Iconic” rates among the most overused words in sports, to the point that it has become cliché, but is there really any other way to describe the number two, unencumbered by the distraction of a name above it, on the back of Jeter’s pinstriped Yankee uniform?

Fans tend to allow themselves the illusion that they know who a player is beyond his performance on the field, court or rink. Despite our obvious ignorance to players’ everyday lives and off-field personalities, we like to believe that we know them. Somehow, Jeter, despite spending a 20-year career in the country’s biggest media market, never allowed that façade to be built around him.

Among the reasons we like to pretend that we know athletes is that we also like to find ways in which they are like us. Jeter was not. We were not 14-time All-Stars. He was. We do not have five World Series Rings, five Gold Gloves or five Silver Sluggers. He does. It’s a pretty simple inequality.

In a sense, he wasn’t Jeter. He was number two. He was “The Captain.” His picture, perhaps alongside those of Tom Brady, Michael Phelps and Serena Williams, belong next to the word “winner” in the dictionary.

He played for an organization that won championships often. Expectations were as high as they possibly could be, and they were consistently met. In this way, Jeter was the epitome of a Yankee. To be a great Yankee is unlike being great for any other big league franchise. To be a great Yankee is not to be a good player, or even the best player, on the team for five-plus seasons, as it is for every other big league team — if the threshold is even that high. Instead, to be a great Yankee is to be at the heart of a dynasty, and there is no disputing that Jeter was a part of a dynasty in his esteemed 20 years in the game.

Jeter’s status as a Yankee and athletic star is so unquestionable that it seems silly to waste any more time on it. The task at hand is to identify the significance of that number two specifically.

For Yankee fans who had the pleasure of watching Jeter play live at Yankee Stadium, no small part of that memory is how Jeter was hailed by Bob Sheppard. Sheppard, said to have the “voice of God” by MLB Hall-of-Famer Reggie Jackson, was the public address announcer for the Yankees from 1951 to 2007. Perhaps the call for which Yankee fans will most remember Sheppard is “Now batting … number two … Derek Jeter … number two.”

In Sheppard’s announcement that Jeter was making his way to the plate, we learn a lot about “The Captain” and his legacy. It is no accident that there was no position announced or that it is “number two” and not “Derek Jeter” that Sheppard repeated.

He was not Jeter. Those five letters never saw the back of a Yankee uniform. No, he was number two. The only feature that was entirely inseparable from his game. Sure, he was a shortstop and a damn good one, but that is not how we remember him. Sure, he had a sweet stroke with a unique ability to drive the ball into the gap in right-center, but that too will eventually be forgotten. The enduring image of Jeter’s career is that familiar number two on the back of a pin-striped jersey.

Most of the time when a franchise hangs one of its stars’ numbers from the rafters, it is not really commemorating the number as much as remembering a career. Generally speaking, retiring a number is merely a way of showing respect to the player by reserving it for him. But Jeter’s two is not just any jersey number.

For Jeter, the number on the back of his jersey — more than his name, position or spot in the batting order — defined his career. An organization with the historical might of the Yankees does not need individuals to attain greatness. The jersey number represents the sole form of individual expression allowed by the Yankees, an organization that not only does not allow names on its jerseys but also famously forbids long hair, beards or other manifestations of individual character.

The Yankees gave Jeter one means of individual expression that he could use to isolate his own play and legacy, the number two. Jeter took that number and turned it into something much more than just a number.

Jeter’s two so strongly connotes excellence that it is now often co-opted by younger shortstops, most of whom grew up watching SportsCenter as Jeter backhanded ground balls from the hole and fired strikes to first while jumping in the other direction. Andrelton Simmons, Xander Bogaerts and Troy Tulowitzki are among those who wear the now hallowed number.

I don’t mean to suggest that Jeter’s only legacy will or should be his number. Such a claim would be ridiculous. Over the course of his career, Jeter always seemed to traffic in excelling at the right time, in the right moment. Whether it was the walk-off in his final game at Yankee Stadium, the home run in the 2001 World Series that made him “Mr. November” or the flip against the Oakland A’s, Jeter always came through. Since there were so many of these moments, we must remember the one constant through all of them: A navy blue two so dark it almost looks black on the back of a Yankee who always seemed to have one fist in the air, celebrating success, whether at the plate, in the field or on the diamond.