And Not to Yield
Only one sportsman can match Ryan Giggs for longevity: the New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter
In a minority of footballing careers there comes a point when, because a player has headed so far into uncharted territory, comparisons become outdated and invalidated. Ryan Giggs was long likened to Sir Bobby Charlton and, when he broke the World Cup winner’s club record of making 757 appearances for Manchester United, it was a colossal achievement. Yet four and a half years and another 200 or so games later, Giggs is still going, Charlton an ever smaller dot in his rear-view mirror.
And then the search for a counterpart elsewhere began. Another elegant blend of pace and immaculate timing, Paolo Maldini, made 902 appearances for AC Milan, the most for any club. Until Giggs overhauled him and, again, rather than accepting his place in the history books and calling it quits, kept on going. Now Maldini, too, has been distanced.
There are mentions of the greatest servant to the San Siro’s other tenants. Like Giggs, Javier Zanetti was born in 1973 and, including internationals, he is also in the exclusive group of players to have made 1,000 senior appearances. But despite more than 850 games for Internazionale, the Argentinian is not a one-club man. Once again, Giggs stands apart.
Or he does in football anyway. There is an equivalent on the other side of the Atlantic, who differs in that he plays a very different sport, but who has considerable similarities. If there is a second Giggs, arguably he is to be found in the New York Yankees’ uniform. He is Derek Jeter.
For the uninitiated, the Yankees can be seen as baseball’s equivalent of United, a big-budget club with millions of fans and a tradition of success. Their total of 27 World Series rings is a record, like United’s 20 English league titles. While the Yankees have now formed a partnership with Manchester City to create New York City FC, which will become the 20th member of Major League Soccer, a dozen years ago they had a marketing alliance with United. It was a brief relationship but a natural fit. To their detractors, superpowers like United and the Yankees constitute an evil empire1. Their every defeat delights millions.
And yet even many of the haters are prepared to make an exception for the respective idols, men who have both embodied their club and transcended it. Like Giggs, Jeter has rewritten the history books. Before him, Mickey Mantle had played the most games as a Yankee, with 2,401. Like Giggs, Jeter has added another couple of hundred to the previous best. More significantly, Lou Gehrig had a franchise best 2,721 base hits as a Yankee (a feat that could be compared to being the record Test run-scorer for Australia or India). Jeter, with some 600 more, has gone way beyond the previous peak, just as Giggs has done in overhauling Charlton’s appearance record.
Their careers have been so long that, without really trying to, some of the more obscure records have come their way. Giggs, not the substitute supreme Ole Gunnar Solskjær, has come off the bench more often than anyone else for United; Jeter, without anyone thinking it is his major attribute, has stolen more bases than any other Yankee.
They were born seven months apart, both to a mixed-race family. Neither came from the city where he made his name — Giggs was born in Cardiff, while Jeter grew up in Michigan — but the Welshman moved to Greater Manchester as a six year old and the American grew up a Yankees fan because his grandfather was from New Jersey. Both may stretch the definition of the local boy made good but these one-club men represent a throwback to the days when they were more common.
To the trained eye, both had exceptional potential and, viewed from today, there appears an inevitability about them spending their entire career at their beloved clubs. Actually, it came from others’ oversights. Giggs was at Manchester City’s School of Excellence before Sir Alex Ferguson intervened. Baseball’s draft system meant Jeter had less of a say in his destination. The Yankees only had the sixth pick but he was bound for the Bronx after the Houston Astros, Cleveland Indians, Montreal Expos, Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds all overlooked the future great for players who would make a negligible impact (the Astros’ Midwest scout quit in frustration after they ignored his suggestions to pick Jeter).
Both arrived at clubs who were starved of success — United had not won the league title since 1967, the Yankees the World Series since 1978 — but helped end the drought. Giggs was a champion in his second full season in the team (1992-93), Jeter in his first (1996). For both, it was the first of four titles in five years. Their personal trophy cabinets are bigger than those of many a distinguished club: Giggs’s 13 league titles are as many as Arsenal have won and more than any club bar Liverpool; Jeter’s five World Series put him ahead of the Chicago Cubs, the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies, to name but three of baseball’s most famous names.
They became figureheads for a new era, spearheading a younger generation who gravitated to become the senior citizens. Six of ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ — Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers — appeared together for nine successive seasons. Jeter was the leader of the ‘Core Four’ with the starting pitcher Andy Pettite, the closer Mariano Rivera and the catcher Jorge Posada. Jeter, Posada and Rivera became the first trio in the history of professional sport in the United States to line up together for 17 consecutive years, the same length of time Giggs, Scholes and Gary Neville were first-team colleagues. Now, however, Giggs and Jeter are essentially alone. Scholes retired for the second time in the summer of 2013 and Rivera followed in the autumn. (Pettite has both left and rejoined the Yankees, retired and returned; with first Posada and then Rivera bowing out, only Jeter has provided continuity.)
They are the last survivors of great dynasties. Their respective teams peaked just before the millennium. United won a historic Treble of the Premier League, the Champions League and the FA Cup in 1999. The Yankees’ total of 125 regular and post-season victories in 1998 remains a record.
Giggs and Jeter both had particularly prestigious duties. Wingers have long had a special place in United’s affections and, on his emergence, Giggs was predictably heralded as ‘the new George Best’. Jeter, meanwhile, is the Yankees’ shortstop, the most coveted fielding position. (It is no coincidence that in Chad Harbach’s The Art Of Fielding, an attempt to draw the great American novel from the great American game, the central character, Henry Skrimshander, is a shortstop.) Granted ability, looks and money, fortunate enough to play for the club they loved in winning sides, Giggs and Jeter led charmed lives.
Too charmed, some might say. Their records are remarkable but anyone seeking to underplay their impact can cite one theory: that neither has often been the best player in his team, let alone the league. Over Giggs’s two decades at the top, the outstanding individual has tended to be another, whether Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie. As for the Yankees, Alex Rodriguez said in 2001, “Jeter’s been blessed with great talent but he’s never had to lead. You go into New York, you wanna stop Bernie [Williams] and [Paul] O’Neill. You never say: ‘Don’t let Derek beat you.’ He’s never your concern.”
They were unwise words, not least because Rodriguez and Jeter became teammates three years later. Yet the point was that Rodriguez batted fourth — together with third, the most responsible spot in the line-up and where the best hitter is usually found — whereas Jeter has spent virtually all of his career first or second. Unlike Rodriguez, Jeter has never won baseball’s MVP award, despite frequent finishes in the top 10. Giggs’s only Player of the Year award came in 2008-09, a campaign in which he started just 12 league games, although he has been voted a member of the PFA’s side of the season six times. In many respects, it was a lifetime achievement award, rather than a reflection of dominance over nine months.
Yet the opposing argument is that they peak when it matters most. These are big-game players who have delivered in memorable style on the major stage. Giggs’ greatest goal, the slaloming solo run against Arsenal, came in extra time of the 1999 FA Cup semi-final. Jeter’s greatest fielding play, the improvised flip against Oakland in 2001, helped the Yankees win the American League Division Series, en route to the World Series.
Indeed Jeter, unlike Rodriguez, is in the rare position of boasting a higher batting average in the World Series than in normal matches. It has brought him the nicknames ‘Captain Clutch’ and ‘Mr November’. Football doesn’t have the same statistical measures of excellence but as Giggs’s career has gone on, there is the sense that he has delivered when it has mattered most: a goal as United clinched the title in 2008 at Wigan, the decisive penalty in the Champions League final shootout in the next game and a midfield master-class in perhaps the pivotal game of the following season’s title race, Chelsea’s January 2009 trip to Old Trafford.
It is a sign of their temperament that both have brought up landmarks in spectacular style. Giggs, often spared more mundane matches, was the finest player on the pitch in the Champions League last season against Real Madrid, in his 1,000th senior appearance and at the age of 39. Jeter marked his 3,000th hit, a subject of frenzied attention in New York, by becoming only the second player to reach the milestone with a home run.
The chorus of acclaim has been all the louder because each has gained new admirers in a personal Indian summer. In 2008, Ferguson wondered aloud if Giggs would have to be “phased out”; instead the winger outlasted the manager. Jeter appeared in decline during a difficult 2010; he rebounded to have a superb 2012. Greatness can be bestowed in a minute or over a sporting lifetime of endeavour and a capacity to carry on performing when contemporaries have faded away enhances their cases. If Giggs, in particular, was taken for granted eight or ten years ago, his latter years have brought renewed appreciation.
Enduring excellence, loyalty and longevity account for reputations that rise by the year. So, too, does the status as a role model. Jeter, whose reputation has remained unsullied while many other baseball players have been exposed as steroid abusers, is particularly deserving. Neither has been expelled from the pitch for his club (Giggs has one, slightly unfortunate and often forgotten, red card for Wales) and, unlike their colleagues, have been consistently uncontroversial in their comments. They have preferred to make headlines with their on-field antics. Despite a keen interest in the opposite sex (Jeter has dated Mariah Carey and various actresses), each has preferred a low-profile private life, even if references to Giggs as a family man took on a different meaning in 2011.
It is one significant difference. Another lies in their statuses and not merely because Jeter is the Yankees’ captain and Giggs has tended to be the vice-captain or senior professional. He has adapted seamlessly to the era of squad rotation — indeed, it has extended his career — whereas Jeter has tried to stop the hands of time, reluctant to give up his much-scrutinised duties as the shortstop, even for the less strenuous (non-fielding) role as the designated hitter (Jeter’s former teammate Joe Girardi once said he felt sorry for the next Yankee manager because he would have to tell him he couldn’t play shortstop anymore; five years into his time in charge of the Yankees, Girardi still hasn’t passed the message on). When his fellow shortstop Rodriguez joined the Yankees, the newcomer had to play third base. In contrast, Giggs has proved flexible enough to play as a central midfielder, a No. 10 and on the right.
Nevertheless, the question of the succession has lingered over United and the Yankees for years. Ferguson first targeted Damien Duff and Arjen Robben a decade ago. Over the past few seasons, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Ji-sung Park, Ashley Young, Nani, Shinji Kagawa and Adnan Januzaj have spent time on the left flank without a permanent replacement becoming apparent. Jeter’s eternal understudy Eduardo Núñez is now 26, the age the older man was when he won his fourth World Series, and the 39 year old’s injury-enforced absence for much of the 2013 season has only reiterated his importance. He wants to remain an every-day player whereas Giggs is content saving some of his efforts for special occasions.
They differ, too, in their income. Jeter’s current, one-year contract is worth US$12 million and entails a pay cut following a three-year, $51 million deal. That, in turn, was preceded by a $10-year, $189 million contract. He used to own a penthouse in Manhattan’s Trump Tower; Giggs lives in Worsley. It is probably the nicer part of Worsley, but it is Worsley nonetheless. Playing the global game for arguably the planet’s biggest club is clearly less profitable than being the sporting king of the world’s unofficial capital.
Perhaps it explains that while one Florida-based billionaire, George Steinbrenner, bought the Yankees in the 1970s, in the 21st-century another, Malcolm Glazer, preferred to invest in United. The crossover, however, has come in the boardrooms. Out on the pitch, the parallels between Giggs and Jeter might not be recognised by either. The United man is a fan of rugby league, the sport his father, Danny Wilson, played professionally. The brand of football the baseball player likes involves an oval ball. He is more interested in Michigan State than Manchester United. They are both products of their environment but, with consistent displays of quality and record-breaking levels of durability, they have defined successful eras at two of the world’s great sporting institutions. They are unique and yet similar.