If you haven’t already – maybe you were hiding out wherever the Atlanta Braves disappeared to – watch the Derek Jeter Gatorade commercial.
Look at the way a young Yankees fan practically short-circuits with excitement after receiving an autographed baseball from Jeter. Or the Jedi-like focus of New York bar patrons when he strides into the joint. There’s the nervous laughter of two women who shook hands with the Captain. And an older woman who appears to be in tears after embracing him.
Some say the commercial is staged; others argue it conveys genuine emotion. For the record, I believe the latter.
Regardless, the commercial is an accurate depiction of a city that embraced an athlete. And how that athlete captivated that city. You can’t walk around New York without being reminded of Jeter. Whether it’s on billboards, TV or the back cover of the Post, at a 24-Hour Fitness (he’s a partner) or the Trump Tower (he had a penthouse there), everything about the city screams the Yankee shortstop’s name. Small wonder he was voted New York’s favorite athlete.
It’s rare in professional sports for a league to have a player so iconic that he comes to define an era. Rarer still – especially in the era of free agency – is for an athlete to be so beloved by a city that he becomes part of its DNA; that the city is unidentifiable without mentioning him.
So on the day he takes the field wearing the Yankee home uniform for the final time (weather permitting), let’s look at how Jeter’s relationship with New York stacks up amongst other iconic sports figures and their cities.
7. Joe Montana and San Francisco
Montana won four Super Bowls with the 49ers. And that’s a key to being on this list. You can’t just win; you have to do it a lot to be considered part of a city’s lexicon.
But when most think of San Francisco, they first think of bridges and bread. Only diehard sports fans probably associate Montana with the City by the Bay, mostly because his winning there was done three decades ago. It doesn’t help his cause that he finished his career in Kansas City; though he’s involved in almost every key moment in Niners history, and it’s no wonder that, when it came time to announce his retirement in 1995, he did it in San Fran.
6. John Elway and Denver
Elway did his winning late in his career, raising the Lombardi trophy in his final two seasons. He guided the Broncos to three Super Bowls before that, but because only the final stage of his career – and not the entirety of it – was defined by championships, he’s a notch below Jeter. Still, he bled plenty for the Broncos, led them on “The Drive” and spent his entire career with the team. And Elway is still crafting his legacy in Denver as the Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations/general manager. So I’ll give him an “incomplete” right now.
5. Vince Lombardi and Green Bay
Is this cheating? Yeah, sort of. Is Lombardi a sports icon? Check. Did he win? Hell yeah. The freakin’ Super Bowl trophy is named after the guy. Is he a Packers legend? Yep.
Lombardi didn’t have to compete with the attractions of a big city like others on this list. He was Green Bay. Of course, he definitely shared the spotlight – Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke and Paul Hornung were also stars on his teams – and we’ll never know how he would have stacked up in big markets like New York (he was just a coordinator with the Giants in the 1950s), Chicago or Boston.
4. Larry Bird and Boston
Speaking of: On a franchise that is synonymous with superstars, Larry Legend shone brightest, though perhaps he’s so celebrated in Boston because he did his winning relatively recently.
The big problem with Bird is there seems to be a tug-of-war going on between Boston and Indiana. Bird won a lot with the Celtics. But poll sports fans and half will associate him with Indiana. He’s an executive with the Indiana Pacers right now. And he always had a shy demeanor, which prevented him from being a pop-culture icon like other athletes in his generation.
3. Magic Johnson and Los Angeles
Everything about Magic screams Los Angeles, right down to his nickname. The city is Showtime and Magic ran the show, literally, on and off the court.
He won five titles with the Lakers, hung with celebrities, turned games at the Forum into events and even served as a coach for the team in 1994 (though the less said about that, the better). His ear-to-ear grin is still so much part of the city’s identity that it has been used to sell a baseball team. Johnson is part of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ ownership group.
2. Michael Jordan and Chicago
Jordan actually was the forerunner for athletes like Jeter. He was the first of his kind – not just as a dominant athlete, but a brand. Today, he’s still a pop-culture icon and the history of Chicago can’t be told without mentioning his name.
Six championships, five MVPs and more memorable moments that I can even begin to count; there’s a reason he’s got a statue outside the United Center. He did, however, end his career with a stint on the Washington Wizards, and there was the whole “minor league baseball” fiasco. Still, Jordan is the man in the Windy City.
1. Derek Jeter and New York
Jeter won five championships with the Yankees, enough to define his entire career. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. He was the most popular player on the most popular team, not to mention an endorsement phenom, likely more than any other baseball player in history.
But Jordan can make similar claims. So why the nod? Jeter has spent every day of his professional baseball career with the Yankees. That kind loyalty is almost unparalleled in sports these days. More than anything, that’s why New York loves him so much. Though, of course, the winning didn’t hurt either.