Derek Jeter has had a spectacular baseball career. He's won championships. He's been a charismatic superstar. He's played at a high caliber up until the very twilight of his career. For some reason, though, we talk nearly as much about The Myth of Derek Jeter as we do his actual accomplishments.
The dialogue surrounding Jeter in his final season has been tremendously grating and overwrought, to the point where the consideration of a great baseball player has become actively annoying. Here are the primary ways in which Derek Jeter has been discussed in the months leading up to his retirement:
Class class class class class class: Class is not a statistic we can look up in the record books. (Neither is "clutch," another thing brought up a million times surrounding Jeter.) It's a vague catch-all that revolves around obeying baseball etiquette and "playing the game it's meant to be played." If you're talking about a baseball player and someone mentions how "classy" he is, the part where you're talking about baseball is over. You just have to nod your head and agree. You can't argue the person isn't classy, because "class" is this gooey, indescribable, subjective thing. And you can't say, "Oh, he hit .230 last year," because character isn't dependent on performance.
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There is no doubt that Derek Jeter has conducted himself very well throughout his baseball career in terms of personal behavior. It's strange, however, that this is routinely touted as his greatest attribute. Out of a career of outstanding accomplishments, the thing many have chosen to celebrate is that Derek Jeter has avoided being a douchebag while playing and discussing baseball. It whitewashes the tangible, awesome things Jeter did in his playing days and makes him into a cloying caricature of what a certain group of people think baseball is supposed to be.
We are the Yankees and we are the greatest thing ever to grace the face of the earth: It's hard to disassociate Jeter from the franchise he has played for his entire career, a team that is both the most and least popular in the world. The team doesn't want you to, either. They seem less interested in celebrating Jeter's accomplishments and more interested in making him into a box figurine in the We Are The Greatest Franchise Ever box set. (Buy one and get a free Mariano Rivera!)
You see, Derek Jeter is A True Yankee. He did things The Yankee Way, as if there is any set of shared personality traits between Jeter, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Thurman Munson, and Reggie Jackson. Anything any player or any team accomplishes is only acceptable if viewed as a piece of lore in a franchise that already has cupboards overloaded with lore.
Hey, I am associated with Derek Jeter: Derek Jeter's retirement has become just as much an event about Derek Jeter retiring as it has about every organization with a tangible association with Derek Jeter thrusting themselves next to him for a few moments, just so you are aware they exist. Everybody is guilty of this. Gatorade and Nike releasing moving, but self-serving feature-length ads, to every single team in baseball presenting Jeter with a set of tchotchkes as he played in their stadium for the final time, to commemorate the deep connection Jeter had with, say, Tropicana Field.
Photo credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
Heh, did you know Derek Jeter banged a lot of chicks: Sure banged a lot of chicks, that guy. Heh. Guy banged a lot of chicks.
Derek Jeter hasn't even been good for like, years!: For a good decade and a half, Derek Jeter's consistency was remarkable. At 38, over 15 full years after he entered the league, he hit .316 while leading the league in at-bats. But yes, he has dropped off. There is no reason Jeter, hitting .253 without much power, should have been the No. 2 hitter for a team still hypothetically in the playoff race in September. There's no reason Jeter, whose once-prodigious range disappeared in the mid-2000's, should have been playing shortstop. Admittedly, it has been depressing watching Jeter this year, struggling to be average as we hear praises heaped upon him. But I was still surprised to hear just how much shade has been thrown Jeter's way as he caps a great career.
I've been lying about something for about 20 years. I probably didn't watch the 1996 World Series. I was six years old, and I don't think I understood sports yet. I don't think my parents would've let me stay up late enough, and I don't think I would've had the patience to sit through an actual game.
I did, however, watch the 1996 World Series VHS tape my parents bought for my older brother. I watched it roughly 100,000 times, until I knew every last word. Over and over again, I watched the underdog Yankees rally back from a 2-0 deficit to beat the evil Atlanta Braves in a variety of improbable ways.
Suddenly, I was interested in baseball, and my favorite player was their cool rookie shortstop, Derek Jeter. (Well, it was probably Cecil Fielder, because I thought it was funny that he was fat, but after him.) I dressed up as Jeter for Halloween -- I had a jersey and a baseball glove and a hat -- and for a class project I turned a box of Cheerios into "Jeter-O's," clipping a big picture of him jumping out of the front page of the newspaper and gluing it on.
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If we're wise, we take our good-byes when we can, even when it comes to the much-feted and fare-thee-welled Derek Jeter. If his last home game is rained out, an important opportunity will have been lost.
Fast-forward 20 years, and I'm apparently an adult, and my job is writing about sports. My first favorite player -- now sans hair and the majority of his athleticism -- is finally ending his career. He managed to maintain his skills until close to the twilight of his baseball career, and as such, his resume is littered with spectacular achievements and championships.
If you're reading this, you probably had a first favorite athlete at some point. I'm willing to go out on a limb with him and say he didn't stick around for as long as Jeter has in my life. He got traded to another team in another city. He started playing badly, and wasn't on the team anymore. Maybe you started rooting for him when he was already in the middle or tail end of his career.
On the one hand, that's a bummer. I think I feel a lot younger than I'm supposed to, solely because this one human being playing sports has been a permanent fixture. Losing your favorite player makes you realize there has been change in the world since you've been born. I haven't had that. My entire life has been lived in the Derek Jeter era.
Conversely, the discussion surrounding my favorite baseball player became so unenjoyable that I stopped enjoying him. In 2014, it's impossible to root for Derek Jeter. It's only possible to root for or against the multiple auras or interpretations with which people have shrouded him.
Ideally, Derek Jeter's final season would've been about two groups of people, or one individual and one group. The former would have just been Jeter. The other would've been the fans who have adored him for two decades. Instead, it was about all this other stuff. Hopefully on Thursday night, in his final game at Yankee Stadium, that relationship will shine through more than all the noise that has come to obscure it.