Since Babe Ruth first donned pinstripes in 1920, the Yankees have provided each generation with the privilege of watching an iconic player in their lineup on a daily basis.
With Derek Jeter’s announcement that he will retire after the 2014 season, the current era of fans will get one last chance to see a player who helped transform a franchise.
It’s easy to look at the Yankees now and consider anything but a playoff appearance a lost season -- 17 trips to the postseason and five World Series championships in the last 19 years have a way of spoiling a fan base.
But Jeter came to the Yankees in 1995, when the team was going through a championship drought like it hadn’t experienced since it changed its named from the Highlanders to the Yankees in 1913.
A baby-faced Jeter had just 12 hits in 51 plate appearances in 1995, and though he wasn’t on the postseason roster, the Yankees made the playoffs for the first time since 1981.
Entering the 1996 season, impatient owner George Steinbrenner wasn’t convinced Jeter was the answer and nearly traded away a young pitcher by the name of Mariano Rivera to the Seattle Mariners for a more experienced player at shortstop. New manager Joe Torre and the rest of the front office talked Steinbrenner into holding onto Jeter and gave him the starting job.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Jeter would lead the team in hits in 1996 and capture the American League Rookie of the Year trophy, en route to the Yankees’ first World Series ring since 1978. Winning four World Series over the next five seasons -- sporting an unbelievable 16-3 record in the Fall Classic -- the Yankees erupted as the most dominant team in baseball.
The success of the Yankees led to Jeter becoming the face not just of the franchise but of the entire city.
From a cameo on the hit show "Seinfeld" to a hosting gig on "Saturday Night Live," Jeter transcended the game and became a mainstream celebrity. Like Michael Jordan before him, he was signed by Nike and Gatorade to lucrative endorsement deals.
In the tabloids, Jeter was rumored to be romantically linked to the hottest names in modeling, music and Hollywood -- and still is to this day.
Through all the off-the-field headlines, Jeter continued to produce like no other Yankee before him.
Jeter is the franchise’s all-time leader in hits -- surpassing Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra along the way. With more doubles than Joe DiMaggio and Don Mattingly, he is just nine doubles shy of tying Gehrig for the most in team history.
A 13-time AL All-Star and two-time World Series Most Valuable Player, Jeter was always one of the best players in the game -- yet he seemed magically to take his game to the next level when it mattered most.
No player in MLB history has more hits, doubles, triples or runs scored in the playoffs than Jeter, and his five World Series rings are the sixth-most all-time.
From his miraculous flip to home plate in throwing out Jeremy Giambi in the 2001 AL Division Series to recklessly running into the stands to make a diving catch against the Boston Red Sox in 2004, Jeter's tremendous sense of the moment allowed him to make more than a few defensive plays he had no business making.
With New York grieving in the days after 9/11, Jeter and the Yankees provided a much-needed distraction when they clinched a berth in the 2001 World Series. The tragedy forced the season to be delayed and marked the first time the World Series would ever be played in November.
And though the team would end up losing in seven games to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Jeter’s game-winning home run in Game Four, just after the clock struck midnight and turned the calendar over to November, sent the town into a frenzy and gave birth to the nickname “Mr. November.”
In a clubhouse with longtime teammates Rivera, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettite, Jeter’s grit and cool demeanor made him the undeniable leader. He wasn’t just given the title of team captain. He earned it.
Whenever the Yankees decide to hold the ceremony, Jeter’s number is a lock to be retired along with all the other legendary single-digit immortals that line the wall in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. And at a time when so many greats are being kept out of Cooperstown due to steroid allegations, Jeter’s clean reputation and more than 3,000 hits throughout his career make him a likely rare first-ballot Hall of Famer.
After 19 years, it’s hard to imagine the Yankees without Jeter in the everyday lineup. An injury-plagued 2013 made the transition seem a little more inevitable, though his announcement has a sense of reality attached to it more striking than anyone could’ve imagined.
It’s not hyperbole to say it will be a long time before we see anyone like Jeter in a Yankee uniform again. With Robinson Cano’s departure and no standout prospects in the pipeline, there’s no telling when the next time is we’ll see a player homegrown by the team who can cement their name into the Yankees’ storied record books.
The Yankees can spend however much they want on free agents, but there’s only one Jeter -- and his contributions to the team, as well as to the game of baseball, have been priceless.