clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The last captain of New York

New, comments

Derek Jeter has been a great player, but he has also been the unofficial emblem of New York baseball for a generation. With his retirement looming, who will take that job?

Nick Laham

You don't cast Derek Jeter in your car commercial because he is the best actor available. Derek Jeter is decidedly not the best actor available and is, after all these years and all those commercials, actually something like the worst actor available. His acting is not good -- or, more accurately, it makes Teddy Ruxpin look like Michael Fassbender -- but acting is not Derek Jeter's job. Still, there's something more strange than bad about the way Jeter comes off in the Ford ads that blanket the tri-state area during baseball season. If we arrange all acting athletes along a spectrum, there's the gleefully hammy Peyton Manning on one end, and the oddly mournful Nolan Ryan -- he really puts across the weariness in this old Advil ad -- on the other. Jeter is not on that continuum. He is someplace else, and something else.

It's not just that Jeter seems unconvincing in his enthusiasm for his Ford Fusion's "cool sunroof," although he really doesn't really seem that enthusiastic, or indeed seem as if he had previously heard the words "cool" or "sunroof" or is even aware of how those words are coming out of his mouth. There's all that, but there's also something almost uncanny about Jeter's stiffness and stiltedness in these ads, a sense that he has somehow not worn street clothes before, or spoken to anyone about anything. He doesn't quite seem like a person, in other words. Which is kind of a long way of saying that he seems like Derek Jeter.

For all the real virtuosity that Derek Jeter has shown on the field over his nearly two decades with the Yankees, there has always been something not merely artificial but almost otherworldly about him. He is handsome, but in a composite sketch sort of way, and he has not really aged at all over his 19 seasons in the Bronx, besides an almost imperceptible thickening. There's the anonymity of a video game's Create Player template about him, still, either despite his ubiquity or because of it. Jeter seems most fully human when he is playing baseball, and seems not-so-faintly not-human when he isn't.

It's not necessarily Derek Jeter's fault that he's so supremely opaque -- we know about him only what we are shown, and we see him only through the various narrative scrims that baseball media drops in front of him, and then only through the various individuated things we project on those scrims. But even as his skills have been eroded by time and the game has become harder for him -- the sort of things that would ordinarily humanize an athlete, and set them on a glide back down towards the rest of humanity -- Jeter has remained stubbornly, uncannily Jeter-ian. He is not what he was, but he is the same as he has always been.

Think of a two-way mirror, maybe: Jeter reflects back at a worshipful public whatever vague virtues they want to see in an athletic idol and more or less nothing else. Whatever is on the other side of that mirror, whether it's thrumming circuitry or a silenced soul, is invisible. Some people like this a lot.


Baseball's best-loved players are not generally like that -- there is in those most-admired players the sense of an intellect and a body struggling, in concert and also with each other, with the going-on-impossible goal of mastering this very difficult game. And then there are great players whose genius is concealment, and who present a sublimely untroubled surface. Derek Jeter is that kind of great player.

175353984Photo credit: Jim McIsaac

What makes Jeter so abstract, and both superhuman and not-quite-human, is a sort of supremely attuned astuteness. There are a countable number of hits and runs and stolen bases and so on, and various assessments of value, but above and beyond and also more significantly than all that, there is Jeter's unique sense of presence on the field. Jeter has, for 19 seasons, played with a clarity of purpose and ferocity of intent and an uncommon, uncanny calm that feel, and so maybe are, truly unique. There is a distinctive Derek Jeter Thing, and Derek Jeter is still, even in decline, the only player that embodies it in the way he does.

His role in baseball theology is that of a saint in a stained glass window.

Whether there's any demonstrable truth to Jeter's perceived knack for coming through When It Matters Most is a subject that can be debated or dismissed per various biases, of course. One side can point to numbers and the other to specific moments, and neither will be 1) wrong or 2) fully correct. The statistical fact of the matter is that Jeter's career numbers suggest that he is about as good a hitter -- that is, a very good hitter -- in the postseason as he is during the regular season. (If you were curious: Jeter has played nearly a full season's worth of playoff games over his career, and his .308/.374/.465 postseason slash is a near match for his career .312/.381/.446 line.) But the provable truth about this aspect of the Derek Jeter mythos is not the only or entire truth.

If there's anything objective to the belief that Jeter is his generation's greatest pressure player, it's the perception itself. That perception is so widely held, so endlessly and reflexively repeated, that it has taken on a sort of truth that we can, however grudgingly, honor in the breach. To attempt to prove or disprove it is to miss a crucial point, which is that proof has nothing to do with it.

The Derek Jeter Thing is a matter of (mostly secular) faith, and Jeter as we understand him is a product of that faith. His role in baseball theology is that of a saint in a stained glass window. His accumulated acts, now so great in size and significance as to create their own context, have subsumed the actor and made him abstract, unreal. It's not about how or why or when, here. It's certainly not about the career Wins Above Replacement or his defensive metrics. Derek Jeter's story is, finally, an illuminated catechism of What -- of moments on moments, accruing into the mythic.

175065912Photo credit: Harry How

That vague, sanctified role is the one in which Derek Jeter fits best. If it sounds weird when he barks out some pitch-lines for a hatchback, it's because he can't act, but it's also because he is not really supposed to talk. Jeter as he is understood and adored makes the most sense in the slow motion of a highlight reel: a smile, a slide, a jump-throw and a fist pump, that short swift swing and off he runs at full speed. There he is, there he goes.


New York has a reputation as a secular city, at least relative to ones more readily defined by specific religious traditions. But there is a great deal of faith in New York: every religious faith in the world, sure, but also a more diffuse and widely held popular faith in the city's myths of choice. These are the stories that New Yorkers tell ourselves to justify the relentless little irritations and broader uglinesses that define living here. There are plenty of good reasons to believe that New York is indeed the best city in the world, but the reason the idea is so compelling to New Yorkers on a slushy February morning is... well, obvious, isn't it? This is a difficult place to live, in a bunch of different ways. It is important to believe that it's somehow worth the trouble, and that simply continuing to be here is an achievement.

The baseball players that New York has loved most over the years are not necessarily a group with much in common. Jackie Robinson is not like Joe DiMaggio, who is not like Mickey Mantle who is not like Keith Hernandez who is not like Willie Mays who is not like Reggie Jackson. None of them are quite like Derek Jeter, but all of them reflect a vision of what New York wanted and needed to see at that time, and each was a player onto which the city could project its aspirations and hopes and needs and various dreams. The city and the people who live in it are different from moment to moment, and we will naturally want to see ourselves in different ways.

Jeter, because he was a great player who enjoyed great success, was an easy idol for a relatively easy time. We flattered ourselves to make him our imago, but fandom is not an objective thing, and it's pleasing to imagine Derek Jeter as a representation of yourself. His effortlessness was seamless and smooth, he won and won and won, and dated starlets and never got in trouble. The overlap with New York's airbrushed boom-era brand was total -- Jeter was blessed with great gifts but also worked hard; he won without ever visibly breaking a sweat, just as New York got bigger and taller and richer without obviously doing anything but letting it happen and ignoring various bits of bad news. All that apparent effortlessness complimented and complemented itself in a criminally satisfied ouroboros.

At some point, the strain started to show, and for a while everyone more or less resolved to look past it. Jeter refused to move from shortstop to make room for Alex Rodriguez, a selfish move that doubtless cost the Yankees a great many wins, but for which he was never quite criticized. At the same time, lower Manhattan finally realized what it could get away with, and set about pushing at those loose limits. There was a ghoulish baroque period, in which Jeter's decline coincided with an increasingly hysterical defense of his greatness and the city winced at the queasy blinkered cynicism of Michael Bloomberg's willful re-imagining of the city as a Global Luxury Brand. The bubble burst, as bubbles do.

It takes nothing away from Jeter's very real greatness to observe that he is no longer the baseball player that New York City needs. There are a number of likely Hall of Famers who will be playing in the city next year, all at various stages of their careers -- David Wright, CC Sabathia, Carlos Beltran, Ichiro, all awesome and admirable in their own ways. But New York is a city with problems again, or more accurately a city that has once again been compelled to look at what is not working and get to work on fixing it. We have awakened from the highlight reel.

The potemkin utopia of the last decade is in ruin; the ultra-luxury condominiums are mostly empty and the erstwhile financial geniuses living in them have been revealed as emptier still. Everyone knows it. New York likes to win, and needs to see itself as a winner -- Jeter filled that need and made us feel beautiful besides. But the idea, now, is to get to work. There is a sense that the city needs to prove its greatness, rather than merely believe in it. Slow-motion will not do.

The young Mets ace Matt Harvey -- much more a resident of the actual New York than the Trump Tower-dwelling Jeter has been for some time, brooding and still hungry and presently on the comeback trail from Tommy John surgery -- may be the baseball hero that the city needs now. We won't get to watch him for a year or so, though, which will give the city plenty of time to say goodbye to Derek Jeter.

We might as well enjoy it, this end to Derek Jeter's long reign. We absolutely should remember what he meant, and celebrate what he does. While we're at it, we can start dreaming -- as everyone in this city began to do some years ago -- about what triumphs might come next, and start putting a new face on the greatness we'll be dreaming of next, in a future that's already rushing up to meet us.

More from SB Nation MLB:

Derek Jeter announces 2014 will be his final season | Inside his gift basket

The greatest shortstop in Yankees history | Most memorable moments

Baseball is rollin' in cash, slashin' pensions

Angels fishing for Trout extension | Orioles, Suk-min Yoon agree to terms

Brisbee: Baseball teams and the windows that define them