THE SPORTS HERO'S SWAN SONG
On Tuesday, a friend of mine took me to a Yankee game because he'd gotten free tickets at work and I'm moving soon and thus unable to get to many Yankee games for the foreseeable future. Over obscenely expensive beers late in the game, my friend told me he'd once dated a woman who had previously dated Derek Jeter. (This was not idle gossip, but prompted by Jeter having either struck out with men on base or hit into a double play, both of which he did at some point during the game.) According to the ex-girlfriend, Jeter was nice, well-mannered, attractive, but that the relationship was ultimately doomed because his entire frame of reference was baseball.
This is something one hears about Derek Jeter quite a bit, and over the last twenty years much has been heard about Derek Jeter, especially in New York. A star for the New York Yankees occupies a particularly rarefied space in sports discourse, given their unparalleled number of World Series wins and the fact that, since the arrival of Babe Ruth in 1920, the longest the Yankees have gone without winning one was the the eighteen year stretch that ended with the ascent of, wouldn't you know, Derek Jeter, whose Yankee teams have won five since 1996. In that time, Jeter has become the Yankees' all-time leader in hits, stolen bases, games played, and at-bats, and cemented his legacy in the continuum that began with Ruth and is populated by immortal names like Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Munson, and Mattingly.
The omission of some names from that list highlights another aspect of Jeter's legacy, which is not only having excelled on the field while in a Yankee uniform, but being a True Yankee, a highly controversial status among fans of the other twenty-nine major league teams, who hold that the very notion of the True Yankee is a giant pile of bullshit. Which it is, of course, except when it isn't. True Yankees are, in one sense, players it's impossible or excruciating to imagine wearing another jersey, in which regard they're not fundamentally different from True Red Sox or True Cardinals or True Dodgers. But the dark blue pinstripes, the ballpark in the Bronx with the goofy-shaped outfield that everyone pretends wasn't almost completely rebuilt in the 1970s and replaced in 2009, and all the World Series banners, all of this (particularly the last) gives the Yankees franchise a self-perceived license to self-administer additional gravitas. But the whole “True Yankee” thing is an actual thing, with a long history, even if it's more branding than anything with any meaningful baseball value.
It started in the 30s, when new manager Joe McCarthy (no relation to the Senator) established a universal style, both on the field and off, of functional professionalism. The Yankees were to be free of unnecessary flash, to win on the field and be business-like gentlemen off of it. It's been the Yankees' brand ever since, however contrary reality (especially in the 70s, with Reggie Jackson—not coincidentally my favorite Yankee of all time—carrying on like a total fucking asshole, and sublimely so, at all hours of the day including when hitting five-hundred foot home runs) may be.
However self-righteous and alarmingly right-wing the True Yankee mystique has proven to be at times over the years, I've always derived a mildly perverse pleasure from the fact that, on the field at least, Derek Jeter has always completely lived up to that ideal. He is, per my friend's ex, someone who lives and breathes baseball, and who is completely, to the bottom of his heart, devoted to the New York Yankees of both legend and reality. Despite having devoted a far larger bulk of my fan gushing over the years to other Yankees, the idea of anyone other than Derek Jeter playing shortstop for the Yankees has been essentially unthinkable since about a month into his rookie season.
One thing that I think will be lost in years to come when Jeter's career is meticulously assessed and assigned a place in The Grand Scheme Of Things is how idiosyncratic a player he actually is. His “inside-out” swing, is probably the most famous, and given that he's played his home games in a stadium that was designed to be advantageous to hits to right field, seemed like a far less weird thing than it actually is. The weirdness doesn't stop there: for his entire career, despite being six feet three and capable of knocking the crap out of the ball (even if more in the manner of a line-drive hitter than a home run slugger), Jeter has been seemingly obsessed with reminding everyone paying attention that he knows how to bunt, and totally will bunt, man, because he does The Little Things That Win Baseball Games. What's always been so odd about this is that Jeter has all kinds of legitimate tricks up his sleeve that help win ball games, and he does play all out, with total sincerity. But his inability to do so without also calling attention to the fact that he's Doing The Little Things That Win Baseball Games rubs fans of other teams—particularly the Red Sox, whose fans practically have to be held at gunpoint to stop twitching and screaming “JETER SUCKS” at random moments throughout the day—the wrong way.
And, fan of the Yankees though I am, and as fond and respectful of Derek Jeter as I am, no honest discussion of his career is complete without the admission that, at his best, he was a mediocre defensive shortstop. He managed to obfuscate this by having a strong enough arm to pull off his signature jump-throw, which looks really cool but doesn't serve a ton of functional purpose. By the mid-2000s, his range had deteriorated to the point where Bill James declared him to be “probably the most ineffective defensive player in the major leagues, at any position,” an assertion supported to degrees by multiple advanced statistical studies and, not to put too fine a point on it, simply watching YouTube clips of Derek Jeter compared with actually good defensive shortstops.
His bat, though, compensates with sufficient value that, however Red Sox fans and other detractors might mutter darkly about how overrated he is, Derek Jeter is still a legit all-time great, and a fascinating study in dualities. His on-field achievements derive from an oddly counter-intuitive blend of natural ability and obsessive hard work. He managed to play shortstop, the glamor position, for the New York Yankees, the legendary champions in the biggest city in the United States for twenty years, and yet be able to pull off the image of a blue-collar clock-puncher on the field.
I hope that, when he retires at the end of this season, he's able to comfortably adjust to the next phase of his life. This is not only with regards to his love life—which, honestly, is none of my business, and I might have omitted mention of it entirely here were it not for the way that story about my friend's ex segued so neatly into Jeter's obsession with baseball—but in the way that many famous athletes, having spent their entire lives on sports, find themselves at a relatively young age facing the realization that all of that is over. We forget sometimes, absent the worst kind of reminders, that sports heroes are human beings. Incredibly rich ones, in the most fortunate cases, but still.