In the wake of legendary Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra‘s passing Tuesday night, the interesting topic of greatest living Yankee riled up.
It’s an interesting debate, and while I have enough trouble figuring the order of the top 10 New York Yankees of all time, I thought this debate was one worth tackling.
Of the greatest still gracing God’s green earth, the few that ultimately stand out worthy of the title are Whitey Ford, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera.
Like Berra, Ford served in the military during 1951-52 before rejoining the Yankees in 1953. He goes down as the winningest pitcher in Yankees history (236), seventh-best ERA (2.75), most games started (438), most innings pitched (3170.1) and second-most strikeouts (1,956).
Ford was a 10-time All-Star, six-time World Champion, 1961 Cy Young Award winner and World Series MVP, three-time AL wins leader and two-time ERA leader. The Hall of Famer is the greatest pitcher in Yankees history.
Rivera is the greatest closer in Yankees and MLB history. We all know Rivera left baseball as the all time career saves leader with 652 — he also leads the Yankees in career pitching appearances (1,115), opponent batting average (.211) and WHIP (1.00).
Of course, what stands out about Mariano is his postseason success — 0.70 ERA in the postseason is No. 1 all time. He’s No 2. all time among postseason winning percentage (.889 percent). Of the top 10, Rivera’s 141.0 innings is second only behind John Smoltz‘s 209 IP (Smoltz is eighth on the list at .789 percent). Mo’s 42 saves, 33 1/3 scoreless innings streak, 23 consecutive save opportunities converted and 96 postseason games pitched are all No. 1 in postseason history.
Rivera was so good, he has more than twice as many postseason saves as the next pitcher, Brad Lidge (18), and his 14 postseason saves spanning more than one inning also sets a MLB record.
As great as Mariano was on a pitching mound, he’s an even better person. It’s rare for any athlete to stay out of the limelight or avoid any negative headlines, especially in New York, but Rivera is one of the few to do just that.
Jeter can be summed up as Mr. November. The Captain is known for the flip vs. the Oakland Athletics, and the dive into the stands against the Boston Red Sox. Derek’s illustrious career leaves him with marks that not even Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig or Joe DiMaggio ever had. Jeter is the only Yankee to have 3,000 career hits as he finished with 3,465 — 744 more than second place Gehrig. Jeter is No. 1 in games played (2,747), at-bats (11,195), doubles (544) and stolen bases (358).
Like Rivera, Jeter is held to the highest of standards, both on and off the field. Jeter was rarely ever thrust into negative light, and any potential fallouts with owner George Steinbrenner or the media were simply squelched before anything could manifest into a distraction.
These three Yankees stand out not only because they each finished as the greatest at their positions with the only franchise they have ever known, they each reached a top pinnacle off the field — Ford’s military efforts, Rivera’s philanthropy and religious dedication and Jeter’s charitable Turn 2 Foundation.
The problem with comparing players of differing eras is I have no idea just how great Whitey was outside of statistics. He is among the greatest pitchers in history before pitch counts and heavy reliance on bullpens.
I can say I understand the impact of Jeter and what he meant to the Yankees of the 1990s, MLB and their fans. I felt that impact when witnessing Jeter’s final game between the Yankees and Baltimore Orioles in Oriole Park at Camden Yards last fall, the crowd rising to standing-room-only capacity each Jeter at-bat. Only a few players in history could ever illicit standing room only in an opposing stadium.
Similar sentiment was given to Rivera a year prior during his farewell tour. The one knock against Rivera for this argument would be can you really give the greatest living title to a relief pitcher? It’s not Rivera’s fault; it’s just the reality of comparing positions across eras — Whitey vs. Derek: the greatest starter vs. the greatest living everyday player?
If Ford indeed takes claim to the title of greatest living Yankee, it’s well deserved. Jeter will have that title some day. His place in history among the greats of Ruth and Gehrig are a glorified rarity.