Why We Worship Derek Jeter (Even If He Kinda Sucks at Shortstop)
Derek Jeter announced Wednesday that he’s retiring from pro ball—and headed for a first-ballot, no-doubt-about-it, unanimous selection for the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2019. The selection will make ten million Yankees fans cry in their bourbons. But it’s a bummer for us Mets fans, too.
Because Jeter, in an era rife with skeevy investigations featuring a cast of characters that’d make Elmore Leonard blush, and Kabuki theater Congressional inquiries into baseball’s drug problem, is perhaps the one gent that everyone would agree was clean as a whistle.
And that image of Jeter—that he is the embodiment of what we’d like our athletes to be, not just in terms of how he performed his job, but as the perfect avatar to lose ourselves in, to pretend for a few moments that his successes and triumphs and golden wreaths and the ineffable sense that, regardless of the situation, he would do the right thing—is what will remain after all the stats fiends have delved into what he was as a player and the thousands upon thousands of weepy, mythologizing articles and highlight-reel clips are swept into the dustbin of history.
He dragged the Yankees out of a particularly dreary and un Yankee-like destitute stretch, one that was filled with tepid losing seasons, George Steinbrenner’s enforced exile in Tampa (a modern-day substitute for Elba if ever there was one), and the likes of Kevin Maas, Matt Nokes and Randy Velarde looking like cos-play MLB fetishists as opposed to the eternal march of greatness and dominance that has always been evinced by those godawful pinstriped jerseys.
The raw numbers that he accumulated over his 19 years in that uniform—at least, the raw offensive numbers—are unarguably great. After 19 years, 13 as an All-Star, playing possibly the second most physically demanding position in the field to the guys behind the plate, for 2,602 games, swatting 3,316 hits (5th in MLB history), 256 home runs and 1,261 RBI with a lifetime batting average of .312 while leading New York to five World Series crowns means that he’ll have his number 2 retired and a nice shiny bas-relief statue bearing his likeness out in Monument Park.
The advanced statistics, especially where fielding is concerned, are a different story. The gentlemen that parse data often have been somewhat unkind to the Yankee Captain. They have (and will) say that, even at his peak, Jeter’s been overrated. Of course, this has only seemed to embolden his legion of fanboys, inspiring them to unleash a torrent of bile about asthmatic, bespectacled, pencil-necked geeks killing what’s true and beautiful about the great American pastime with their fetishistic worship of data points.
It’s retrograde and silly, but that doesn’t mean that they’re entirely wrong. Because that’s the thing about sports: yes, we watch out of a clannish desire to participate in a Manichean struggle in which there are clear winners and losers, as opposed to the constant stream of undecipherable gray shades that make up the majority of most people’s lives.
But we also watch because there exists the possibility of seeing moments of beauty and wonder that make us question the very boundaries of physics, and as much as we’d like to, there is no number or unified field theory (or even two simple digits like the final score) that can encapsulate that.
This unreal play from Game Three of the 2001 AL Division Series (also a fine example of the previously mentioned “Clutch gene”) is exhibit A:
And then there’s the casual, seemingly effortless way he did this:
And in a key September game versus the hated Red Sox, this. Oh-so clutch:
I mean, who wouldn’t want to vainly indulge in the fantasy of being that guy. This paradox—that his flaws ended up burnishing his image—continued in those moments when he wasn’t plying his trade, as he was linked romantically to pretty much every prominent female celebrity/uber-sex symbol the end of the 20th to the beginning of the 21st century: Mariah Carey, Jordana Brewster, Minka Kelly, Gabrielle Union, Tyra Banks, Jessica Biel, Adriana Lima, Jessica Alba, and possibly Scarlett Johansson.
And even when the tawdry details were revealed, such as the vaguely creepy, typically tabloid revelation that Derek often gave his paramours a lovely gift basket after their time together was over. Check out this amazing sentence from the New York Post:
Yankees star Derek Jeter, one of New York’s most eligible hunks since his split with longtime gal pal Minka Kelly, is bedding a bevy of beauties in his Trump World Tower bachelor pad—and then coldly sending them home alone with gift baskets of autographed memorabilia.
Which is just a little bit weird, to be honest. But if you can get past the predilection for alliteration and the teehee!-ish tone in the article, the fact that Jeter allegedly thought passing out 5x7 glossies was a good thing, is the off-the-field equivalent of his shoddy range factor.
My thoughts when I read about this little incident? “Yeah, Jeter might have a sex life that’d make Wilt Chamberlain blush like a Victorian dowager. But look how goofily or even doofily he’s treating his lady friends! It probably wasn’t the best thing to do, but it’s also kind of awkward and charming. You know, just like I would if I were in his custom Nikes!”
If you really want to delve into Jeter’s bedroom hijinks, take a gander at this Reddit thread. It’s definitely NTSF and gossipy rumor/hearsay, but it’s also hilarious and just a little bit sad. Yeah Jeets!
And then there are the commercials for Ford, VISA, Gillette, Gatorade, Nike, and on and on, because yes, Madison Avenue figured out pretty early on that Jeter would make a dandy pitchman. The thing is, he wasn’t. He was just about as stiff and awkward and probably uncomfortable as most other athletes are when they have to get serious about brands in front of a camera, but again, that was perceived as being more sincere somehow than a slick, polished performance would be.
Even today, though his written statement struck just the right tone—a mix of humility and graciousness with nods to New York City’s massive ego combined with just enough sadness and wearily resigned admissions about it being time to move on—he also plastered the thing on Facebook. I guess if you want to generate viral buzz, that’s the thing you do.
One might think of this as crass and unnecessary. This story certainly doesn’t need any buzz. For Jeter and/or his team of representatives, that criticism is going to slide away like he was made of pure Teflon. If it’s mentioned at all, it’ll be framed as “speaking directly to the people” or “avoiding the unnecessary spectacle of a press conference” regardless of the fact that Facebook is a press conference, just one without the flashbulbs going off, a bouquet of microphones, the swarm of reporters and the non-answers to non-questions.
In the end, that’s Jeter’s greatest skill. Not the jump throws or the slashing line drives he’d lace at the precise moment that it was needed, but his ability, even in the midst of becoming a Yankee icon and an object of near-universal worship during a time of media saturation that’d absolutely shred the likes of a DiMaggio or a Mantle, to somehow come across as more human. Yes, a flawed human with contradictions and flaws, but they never were the kind of things that made us hate or envy or resent him or demand that he be cast into a purgative, celeb-consuming fire to reveal what’s really behind that mask.
He is, or rather was, the guy that we’d feel comfortable (instead of childish and silly) loading up with our hopes and dreams because that exercise in folly never felt like an implausible vanity. I can’t imagine that we’ll see that again any time soon.
If only he had played for the Mets.