“Explain Derek Jeter.”

“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 I think I’d become a bit withdrawn for whatever reason, and he, eager to bring me out again, offered me this on a silver platter.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.

 

 

___

 

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Social Experiment Time!

 

Recently, I went on a non-date with a complete stranger from the internet.

 

How did this happen, you ask? Well, it definitely started with that online dating profile I made a while back on a site built around proposed date ideas from its users (see here: https://www.facebook.com/notes/sm-rosenberg/my-online-dating-profile-ish/10151702070783186). As you might remember, after a day of poking around the site, I concluded in that piece that I had no intention of using it for dating, because it just compounds the main problem I already have in real life, i.e., being clearly incompatible with almost everybody and having to turn down pretty much anyone who expresses interest. Involving the internet just increases that number. And I’d have to pay for the privilege.

But like any well-marketed site, it sends you tons of emails trying to get you to give it another shot. I get an email every time someone expresses interest in my date idea. I get emails offering me special deals on membership. And I get emails suggesting possible dates in my area.

I usually ignore/delete all of these, but occasionally I open one or two of the suggestion emails to remind myself that my decision not to get caught up in trying to date through this site was definitely the right one, since most of the suggested date ideas are either (a) lame and nonspecific, e.g., “Let’s do something fun,” or (b) specific but unappealing to me, e.g., “Let’s go to [insert name of non-kosher restaurant here]” or “lets go to this bar i know and get totally wasted haha.” (It’s the “haha” that lets you know that guy’s a real winner.)

But a little while ago I checked one of those emails, and one of the nine potentials presented to me was, “Let’s find a sports bar and watch some postseason baseball.”

 

And I was like, you know, that actually sounds like a lot of fun. Never done it before, but why not? Always wanted to. If nothing else, there will be playoff baseball.

So I clicked the guy’s profile to check for obvious signs of serial killerness or other red flags, and didn’t see any — he was around my age, working as an artist’s assistant, hoping to open his own gallery one day. As expected, he’s not relationship material for me, since he (a) identifies as a Christian and (b) says he wants kids someday, but otherwise seemed fine.

I believe I mentioned in the last piece that if you don’t pay for a subscription on the site, you have no access to its messaging center. So there was a very good chance that I would be unable to communicate with him, regardless of how okay I deemed him to be. Fortunately, a lot of people have found a way around that wrinkle by including an email address in their profile, and Sports Bar Boy was one of them.

I mulled it over for a moment or two, then sent out this email:

“Hey,

So this might be a little weird, so I’m going to be totally upfront — I don’t date anyone who isn’t Jewish. I also don’t drink. But I saw your date idea about finding a bar and watching some postseason baseball, and even though the Yankees didn’t make the playoffs (alas, t’was a miserable season), I would love to hang out with someone in a place like that and just have fun talking baseball. Not as a date, just as friends. Or bros. If a girl can be a bro. Whatever. I totally understand if that’s not what you’re looking for. I mean, it is a dating site, after all.

Let me know?”

I realize that as a girl, I have a weird kind of advantage in a situation like that. If a random guy sends you an email like that, most girls would probably regard it as pretty suspect and wonder if there’s an ulterior motive. At least, I probably would. But for a girl to say something like that to a guy, I think, is a little less sketchy for some reason, mostly because there isn’t that widespread worry that a girl is going to take advantage of getting a guy alone in this type of scenario. Not that girls never do that — it’s just not, well, expected, whereas for guys, it sort of is because of how often it happens. Pretty sad.

He responded not long after:

“Hello! No worries about your upfrontedness, that is exactly why I posted my email address on my dating profile, haha. [Note the better usage of “haha.”] I’m also fine that you aren’t interested in a date. I have lots of family in St. Louis and grew up a Cardinals fan, so I am pretty amped for the postseason. I’d definitely be open to a watching partner sometime, so maybe we can plan something, bro to bro. How’s your schedule look this coming week?”

I have to admit, it was the “bro to bro” bit that sealed the decision. Felt like, yeah, this is a guy who gets it.

And it evolved from there, with scheduling and the Cardinals winning and losing and winning again, pushing themselves into the second round and giving us a chance to coordinate a night that worked.

 

I told a few friends about it, mostly for the purposes of, “I want some people to know where I am and possibly check in on me periodically to make sure he hasn’t ax murdered me.” Sensible precautions and whatnot. Sad that they’re necessary, but whatever, you do what you gotta do.

The day of, I very briefly considered dressing down, oversized t-shirt, totally casual, but who are we kidding. I got dressed nicely because (a) I like looking good, (b) you can actually learn a lot about the kind of decency or values a guy has re: women when you show up looking good vs. looking shlubby (more on this later), and (c) I’d just gone to Amazing Savings that day and come across some cheap new makeup and really wanted to try it out. What can I say; I’m an extremely girly tomboy.

I was a bit apprehensive that we’d have nothing to talk about, so I looked over the Cardinals’ and Dodgers’ rosters beforehand and noted some key stats — such as the fact that Adam Wainwright’s strikeout-to-walk ration is ridiculous — just to have them in my back pocket in case things lagged. (One thing about being a baseball fan who hasn’t followed a team in a while — you don’t have to know all the stats on every player by heart; you just have to know what to look for when you’re looking at a stat sheet, what’s notable. Like that strikeout-to-walk ratio and the fact that the Cardinals’ leadoff hitter doesn’t steal bases. Interesting factoids that give you context and tell you what to expect.)

 

Getting there was a bit of an adventure. I mean, the bus and trains were fine, but once I got out, no one I asked on the mostly deserted streets seemed to know where I should go, and I could not for the life of me orient myself on the map on my phone. I texted Sports Bar Boy that I was a little lost but on my way. He asked where I was, I told him, and he texted back the score.

I liked that. He didn’t offer to come find me or anything chivalrous like that — I wasn’t some girl he was trying to woo or impress; I was a bro and we were here for the game, so that’s what he texted me. I liked that.

So I finally found the bar by process of elimination, having gone in every other possible direction first. (Again, not my fault! I asked for directions twice.) The bar was well-lit and mostly empty, because most New Yorkers don’t give a darn about a Dodgers-Cardinals playoff series, and I had a feeling I knew which one of the guys sitting at the bar was him, but I wasn’t a hundred percent sure, so I sat down in a booth by the door, and texted him. He looked up, we waved, and I came over and sat down on the stool next to him.

Another almost unconscious assessment that I made as a girl, whereas guys generally don’t have to: He was a small guy. Bigger than me but not by much. I could totally take him in a fight if I had to. (No offense to him.) I didn’t even realize I’d made this calculation until much later; it’s just automatic.

 

We started talking, and it was extremely casual and chill. He updated me on the game, which was playing right in front of us with closed captions and no sound because there was an equally silent football game playing on the screen right next to it. I warned him that I was slightly rooting for the Dodgers because (a) Mattingly and (b) it would be a much more interesting series if the Dodgers put up more of a fight than they had so far.

I also told him I’d looked into how many serial killers are from St. Louis to see if the statistics were in his favor, and he was slightly shocked and a bit amused.

“But I’m not from St. Louis. My dad is; that’s why I’m a Cardinals fan. But I’m from DC.”

Crud. A whole three-second Google search for nothing. Unrelated: Did you know the only serial killer from St. Louis is guy named Maury Travis?

He was an easy conversationalist, and so am I, so the conversation flowed fairly constantly with a minimum of awkward pauses, and I want to say this: He never once broke from our bro-to-bro agreement. Again, it’s sorta sad that the bar for guys is so low that I’d base a character assessment on what he doesn’t do rather than what he does, but here we go — He never stared at me, never said anything about how good I looked, never attempted physical contact of any kind, never made any sexually-charged remarks, never looked at my chest (well, maybe he did peripherally, can’t say for sure, but definitely not overtly), never asked why I don’t date non-Jewish guys, never asked why I don’t drink, never acted like or implied that me being a baseball fan is unusual or sexy because I’m a girl.

The fact that I’m a girl barely came up at all in conversation; everything was thoroughly gender-neutral, except for at one point when he brought up the question of “Why aren’t there any female umpires?” To which I responded that there was one once (you can read about her here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pam_Postema) who made it all the way to Triple-A ball, but eventually left, possibly because the harassment was too much. And then we joked about me switching career paths and becoming an umpire, which prompted me to google when I got home and turn up this info sheet: http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/official_info/umpires/how_to_become.jsp

 

I want to be clear that none of these things I listed above that Sports Bar Boy didn’t do would, in themselves, have been offensive. I like compliments and being appreciated for my femininity as much as anyone. In a dating situation, those are kind of non-negotiable; you’ve gotta think I’m sexy or what’s the point. But in a very clearly specified non-dating situation, it’s often unnecessary and uncomfortable, and it was so refreshing to spend hours with a guy and be treated purely as a person and not as a girl, regardless of how good I looked.

(Aside: I know I looked good because (a) I have a mirror and (b) I got hit on before I even got out of the subway, by some dudebro with whom I accidentally made eye contact for half a second from the other side of the subway car. He tried to catch me when I got out, and that conversation was over pretty quick:

Dudebro: “Excuse me?”

Me: *keeps walking*

Dudebro: “Excuse me!”

Me: *accepting that he’s not going to give up unless I answer* “Yes?”

Dudebro: “What’s your name?”

Me: *muffled exasperated laughter* “Sorry, no.”

Dudebro: “What, you don’t have a name?”

Me: “I have a name, but I’m not giving it to you, sorry.” [Note to self: invent a name to use in these situations. Miranda, maybe. Or Ashleigh. Or Buttercup.]

Dudebro: “Hey, it’s not like I asked you for a kidney.”

Me: “No, I know, I know, you’re just trying to start a conversation, but I’m sorry.”

Dudebro: *scrambling for a way to continue* “It’s – it’s just that you look familiar.”

Me: “I have one of those faces.” [I do, I really do. A former sex worker I met at a reading in the city told me a few weeks ago that I looked familiar too. But the “you look familiar” line is such a line. Forgive me if I’m skeptical. I was so not in the mood. And he got the message and dropped it.]

Anyway. Just saying, I’m sure I looked nice enough to hit on, but Sports Bar Boy respected every single boundary without making any deal about it. Kudos to him.)

 

He’d ordered some food (mini cheeseburgers and fries) and some beer, and ate while we talked and watched. I’d told him ahead of time that I wouldn’t be eating since the food wouldn’t be kosher, but the nice bartender lady kept me well-supplied with ice water.

Conversation bounced effortlessly from topic to topic. We discussed the pros and cons of the designated hitter. We commiserated about how weird it is to realize that professional athletes like Yasiel Puig (last name pronounced “PWEEG;” it is super fun to say) are younger than you are. We laughed how much more hilarious slow-mo Cialis commercials are without sound. We pondered the fact that superstar ballplayers don’t seem to become managers very often, and would anyone turn down a Cal Ripken Jr. or a Derek Jeter if they said, “Yo, I want to manage your team”? We discussed the Machete Order of Star Wars viewing and how he needs to watch Firefly.

We exchanged baseball stories — for instance, he told me that Cardinals’ manager Mike Matheny had been singled out as manager material decades ago by his college baseball coach, so much so that the coach, who was in charge of scheduling all his players’ classes, made Matheny take Spanish courses so that wayyyy down the road, he’d be able to communicate with Spanish-speaking players, and voila, here he is as a manager of a team with several Latino players, including star catcher Yadier Molina, fluent in Spanish. (Isn’t that awesome?) And I told him about the game I went to where Mariano Rivera got his 500th save against the Mets, and how because of lineup switches and flukey rally circumstances, Rivera was forced to actually hit (which he’d done like once before in his career), and how the Mets, being the Mets, walked him with the bases loaded. His only career RBI. Classic.

We taught each other some stuff we didn’t know. Like I told him that originally uniform numbers in baseball were meant to signify the player’s place in the lineup, which is why Babe Ruth was #3 and Gehrig was #4 and DiMaggio was #5, etc. And once we’d gotten off on a sci-fi tangent, he became the first person who has ever satisfactorily explained to me why Boba Fett is such a fan favorite character despite having next to no onscreen character. (It stems from a couple of moments in the movies where there are indications that Darth Vader himself is wary of Boba Fett, which provided the impetus to fans to speculate and develop their whole Boba Fett mythos.)

The only time things got the teensiest bit awkward was when we moved from a discussion of Twilight to Mormonism, and I got a little defensive of Mormons because people like to pile on and insult them when any religion could easily be picked apart for the same sorts of reasons, and that’s not cool. So yeah. But we skated past that, no problem.

I went to the restroom once, and it occurred to me that I was leaving my glass of ice water unattended and that I’ve been told a billion horror stories of what could happen if you keep drinking from a cup after you’ve left it unattended. But I made a judgment call that Sports Bar Boy did not seem like a guy who carried GHB in his pockets with the intent of spiking girls’ drinks, and I continued drinking from that glass once I got back. And . . . I survived. Anticlimactic, I know.

 

The whole time, I had several friends I was in touch with, via facebook chat and texting. I explained to Sports Bar Boy that it was a precaution and that I wasn’t trying to be rude, and he seemed perfectly understanding. One of my friends was awesome enough to actually check in on me every half hour or so, which was good because I kept forgetting to text her since I was having a good time. Those checkup texts evolved eventually into references that I would complete — “It could be bunnies!” and “They forgot they were cows inside,” to which the only responses are, of course, “Or maybe midgets!” and “But then they remembered!”

One of my friends had forgotten that I was doing this that night and texted halfway through the game to make sure I was still alive. I replied, “He’s nice! Too upset about how the Cardinals are playing at the moment to even attempt to ax murder me!”

Another friend messaged me to gloat about the Dodgers finally playing well and that Sports Bar Boy could suck it.

Me: “My friend the Dodger fan is laughing at you.”

Sports Bar Boy: “Girl friend or guy friend?”

Me: “Guy.”

Him: “Tell him to go to hell.”

Me: *types he says go to hell* “My phone autocorrects ‘hell’ to ‘help.’ It’s very kosher. What would you have said if it was a girl?”

Him: *considers briefly* “Probably the same thing.”

Me: “Egalitarian. I approve.”

The Dodgers eventually won, to Sports Bar Boy’s chagrin. We carried on chatting for a little while after the game ended before shaking hands and splitting off.

*

I do things like this, not necessarily to Step Out of My Comfort Zone, but rather to expand it, and know for the future that something like this is definitely within my comfort zone. And I’d say it is — I met a fun, interesting, articulate person, had an evening full of no-pressure conversation and companionship, bro to bro.

Social experiment: Success. I’d definitely do it again.