“Explain Derek Jeter.”
I’ll always remember that request. It was given to me by a boyfriend (now ex) who knew next to nothing about baseball, when we were still in that barely-knowing-each-other phase, trying to find a comfort zone and topics of conversations that would provide us each a window into the other. I think I’d become a bit withdrawn for whatever reason, and he, eager to bring me out again, offered me this on a silver platter.
“Explain Derek Jeter.”
I’m sure I fumbled for something in the beginning, all “I don’t even know where to start” and “you can’t explain someone like Jeter” — there are so many factors contributing to his image, his reputation, whatever that “Jeterness” is, completely aside from whatever his skill level may be on the baseball field. Derek Jeter the Phenomenon is something separate, or at least in addition to, Derek Jeter the Player, and requires its own explanation.
The current season, being Jeter’s last and thus subject to a retirement tour ala Chipper Jones and Mariano Rivera, has brought out the vitriolic minority who hate him and have internet access to express themselves. And I’ll admit that sometimes it makes me a little bit angry, and a little bit sad, because I don’t particularly like seeing this side of humanity, this tendency to tear people down just because they’ve been elevated.
I should start by saying that Jeter has never been my favorite player.
I became a serious fan in the early 2000s — because of the 2001 World Series, to be exact — and a pattern that I’ve noticed in young fans including myself is that we latch onto the guys that start their careers around the same time that we start following the game. For people who started following in the mid-to-late 90s, that was often Jeter, sometimes Mariano Rivera, sometimes Jorge Posada, sometimes Andy Pettitte — or as they were known, the “Core Four.”
Since I was a late bloomer who only became obsessed with baseball when I was in 6th grade in 2001-2002, my guy was Alfonso Soriano. He was young and explosive and did everything with flash and flair. He struck out too much, he hardly ever walked, sometimes he didn’t run out his ground balls, sometimes he stood too long at the plate admiring his home runs before remembering to actually round the bases, and he wasn’t consistent defensively.
But when he was on, he could hit for average, he could hit for power, he could steal bases, he could make spectacular defensive plays — he made everything exciting.
Jeter, as you might or might not know, is the opposite.
The first time I ever saw him hit, he sacrificed to advance the runner. Little SM was confused and disappointed because Little SM expected home runs every time at bat from the great Derek Jeter.
Little SM didn’t know that Jeter rarely hits home runs, and definitely not with the frequency of a Barry Bonds-type slugger.
Jeter doesn’t hit for crazy-high average like a Tony Gwynn.
Jeter doesn’t steal a ridiculous number of bases like a Rickey Henderson.
Jeter doesn’t play defense like an Ozzie Smith or an Omar Vizquel. (There is a neverending debate over how bad his defense really, truly is that I’m sure will continue well after his retirement.)
He doesn’t do any one thing on the field extraordinarily well. The Jeter brand of excellence isn’t to dazzle you with extremes the way Soriano did. It is simply to be very good at many things, and work hard to stay that way, quietly piling up numbers that almost never lead the league in any individual seasons but add up to impressive career totals.
I’ve seen comparisons to Craig Biggio in terms of playing ability, and it’s a very apt comparison — just look at that link. Biggio deserved to be a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer just like Jeter certainly will be, but he wasn’t, and the uproar was relatively small, and that’s because of all those other factors that surround Jeter that Biggio — not necessarily through any fault of his own — does not have.
“Explain Derek Jeter.”
A lot of it is the Yankee thing, plain and simple. The media firestorm that surrounds this team and all its players and amps them up to preposterous volumes. Come to New York, hit one important home run, and you’re a legend forever. Just ask Aaron Boone. Play in New York for two decades, have a season’s worth of playoff games, win 5 World Series Championships, be good looking, have a hell of a smile, and get the magic Hall-of-Fame-guaranteeing 3000 hits? JESUS. (Being biracial in such a multicultural market doesn’t hurt either. Though I wonder how different things would be if his coloring were more like President Obama’s. Somewhere in a parallel universe is a Derek Jeter who would never be able to pass as white. I’d like to see that.)
And while I said earlier that Jeter is the opposite of early-2000s Soriano in that he does not make everything exciting all the time, he has a definite flair for the dramatic. He has playoff moments that have become immortalized, thanks to the nature of playoffs and of being a New York Yankee — the famous “Jeter flip” where he managed to be in the exact right spot at the exact right time to get a game-saving out and preserve a 1-0 lead; his game-ending walk-off home run in extra innings in the 2001 World Series after midnight had pushed the game into the month of November, and thus Jeter became “Mr. November.”
He has famously dramatic non-playoff moments too, of course — leading off numerous games with home runs, diving into the stands to catch a Manny Ramirez foul ball and coming up bloody but successful, breaking an 0-for-32 slump with a home run, going 5-for-5 and hitting a home run for his 3000th hit. And of course, his recent 2-for-2 showing at his last All-Star Game, despite having a mediocre season to this point.
But he never toots his own horn about any of it; he’s self-deprecating and, yes, classy, as all the haters hate to hear. I heard him asked about diving into the stands and he laughed about hitting his face on a seat, “50,000 people in the stadium and I picked the spot where nobody was.” And I’ve heard him interviewed about the “Flip” and he gives all the credit to Jorge Posada, the catcher, for making the tag on the runner, and shrugs off his own role.
You see, what’s truly exceptional about Jeter, what I am fully prepared to say is his actual extraordinary ability, is that he is the most media-savvy athlete I have ever seen. I recently watched the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game with my older brother (who became a fan during the Core Four 90s era), and both times Jeter was interviewed, we both just wound up looking at looking at each other with big grins on our faces, because it’s hilarious how perfect he is at interviews. He knows exactly what to say, exactly how to say it, he knows when to crack a joke and when to be serious, he pays attention to the questions, he gives thorough, matter-of-fact answers to everything he’s asked, he keeps everything strictly baseball-focused, and he never says anything wrong. Ever.
And that’s part of the appeal that I think gets glossed over by a lot of people — the fact that Jeter is really frikin’ smart. Not in the scholarly, intellectual giant kind of way, but in the self-awareness and people-handling kind of way. He knows how to represent himself. He has navigated 20 years in the spotlight, starting at such a young age, and all this with minimal scandal, despite having dated Mariah Carey, Jessica Biel, Minka Kelly, and a whole bunch of other models, actresses, and celebrities, not to mention whatever one night stands between relationships.
It’s fairly common knowledge that the lack of scandal is largely due to how his parents raised him: from the time he was very young, his baseball-playing was conditional, dependent upon factors such as finishing his schoolwork, no alcohol or drugs, and treating girls respectfully. There was a contract written up that he had to sign every year. Tip of the hat to Jeter’s parents; they had their priorities straight, and that’s evident in their son’s behavior. (There was a brief dustup some years back when the late George Steinbrenner, the Yankees volatile owner, accused Jeter of partying too hard, but that was quickly dismissed with a commercial that they did together, with Steinbrenner famously asking Jeter something like, “How can you afford to party all the time??” and Jeter flashing his Visa card. Classic.)
I’ve never wanted to date Derek Jeter; I’ve never wanted to sleep with him; I’ve never even contemplated meeting him until I sat down to write this piece and thought about that angle. Because I don’t think we’d have much to talk about, but you know what I do think? I have no idea what we’d talk about, but whatever it is, he’ll be warm and engaging and attentive and respectful and we’d probably laugh a lot. That’s impression I get, because that’s the persona he’s crafted for himself.
And yes, of course it’s a persona and I have no freaking clue who the man actually is, what he likes, dislikes, how he sees the world and what he wants from life. But he chose to craft that persona, and those ideals are what people respect and admire about him and why parents feel comfortable saying to their kids, “sure, go ahead, copy Derek Jeter.” Because being warm and engaging and attentive and respectful and having a sense of humor and fun are all wonderful qualities, and they’re undeniably magnetic to men and women alike, hence Jeter’s outrageous popularity, even among non-Yankee fans. I’ve met people who hate the Yankees with a fiery passion but admit that they respect Jeter and would even love to have a beer with him.
Managers and players talk all the time about Jeter’s “intangibles,” the things he brings to the table beyond just his skill level, and the haters hate that, of course, because it’s so amorphous. And obviously I can’t say that it has any impact whatsoever regarding Derek Jeter the Player, but Derek Jeter the Phenomenon definitely benefits from it. During the Steroid Era, I heard people say that if Derek Jeter was ever found to have taken steroids, baseball might as well close up shop, because Jeter is the Last Bastion of Integrity. He represents clean, professional baseball, with no off-field crap. Not a bad symbol to be.
One of my favorite little facts about Jeter is that in his high school yearbook, he was voted “Most Likely to Play Shortstop for the New York Yankees.” And maybe it’s my favorite partly because it’s funny, and partly because it represents his most compelling intangible: that Jeter seems able to make things happen by sheer force of will. He doesn’t hit the most home runs, he doesn’t steal the most bases, he doesn’t get the most hits — and yet he sets his mind to things and makes them happen. Certainly not all the time, and obviously team accomplishments are not Jeter’s alone, but he has had a long and successful career and is living his dream, and is never ungrateful for it. He’s a symbol for that too. And sure, symbolism isn’t reality, but I adore the things Derek Jeter symbolizes, and while I don’t worship at the altar of the Jeter, I’m glad someone like him exists.
“Explain Derek Jeter.”
I can’t. I just can’t.
Like my thinky thoughts? Want more of them? Consider donating and commissioning more, via my GoFundMe campaign — http://www.gofundme.com/sm-automotive — and thanks for reading! And you can keep up with me on Twitter @FloatingSpirals and never miss a post 🙂
You can subscribe and get email updates by using that widget thing on the sidebar! Ain’t that neat?