By Ross Newhan
From the tiime he became the fulltime Yankee shortstop in 1996 until he broke his left ankle in the 12th inning of Game 1 of the American League's Championship Series, Derek Jeter was the best player in baseball.
I say that as a writer who has written about baseball for more than 50 years, and I acknowledge, in the 16 year period before Jeter went down, that there were better power hitters, better hitters for average, better base stealers and better defensive shortstops--Omar Vizquez for sure.
Jeter, however, has been the epitome of the complete player, the quintessential Yankee and, if not Mr. October, few players have ever produced more postseason highlights in 33 fall series.
In an era rampant with drug cheaters, Jeter did it naturally--at least there has never been rumors or evidence otherwise.
Smart, tough, always in the right place at the right time--or think about the 2001 division series with Oakland if nothing more, the backhanded flip as a cutoff man who saw that he had to be far out of position and which nailed Jeremy Giambi trying to score, saving Game 3, and his bloodying, head- first dive into the Yankee Stadium stands to catch Terrence Long's foul fly in Game 5.
He has been the Yankee captain, the manager behind the scenes, the all-time hit leader (passing Lou Gehrig in 2009) of an organization whose hit list contains some of the most renowned names in baseball history.
As the leadoff man he set the tone for a series of Yankee lineups that didn't care about newspaper deadlines or the wearying arms of opposing pitchers, always playing their own postseason game.
They consistently drove up pitch counts as the clock ticked through the time zones, and it all started with Jeter as he fouled off pitch after pitch before looping or driving a single to right field with his inside out swing.
This is not meant as an epitaph. Jeter has another year left on his contract at $17 million, but at 38 it is questionable how effectively he can return at a demanding position, and this seemed to be the appropriate time to put on record my opinion that for 16 years he has simply been the best player in the game. It is also questionable, of course, if the Yankees--wtih a regressing A-Rod among other key issues--can survive Detroit without their captain.