The Church of Jeter

So, Derek Jeter then.

The Captain notched his 3000th hit in just about the most dramatic fashion possible. The only way it could’ve been more The Natural-ish is if hit #3K was a grand slam that simultaneously won the World Series and healed the sick. I tuned into the game, halfheartedly paying attention while trying to write. When Jeter reached down and pulled the ball into left field for a homer, despite the fact that I was alone in the house, I blurted out loud Are you fucking kidding me? Of course, Jeter followed it up by going 5-for-5 and knocking in the game’s go-ahead run. It was all just too perfect. You know those sickeningly sweet breakfast cereals that kids gobble but which are way too sugary for an adult’s tastebuds? This was the sports equivalent of that.

In this situation, as a non-Yankee fan, one’s first inclination is to mock and denigrate, which naturally I did. This is dumb, because it just comes across as sour grapes, and because it denies me a chance to enjoy something that should be enjoyable. As a rational human being (or at least a person who tries to be one) and a baseball fan, I have to concede that 3000 hits is in itself a remarkable accomplishment. I also have to admit that the way Jeter did it is so storybook perfect it would be rejected from even the tritest screenplay. Can’t I just take this in as one of those magical moments that sports hands to us once in a blue moon?

I won’t say no, I can’t, but there is something that prevents me from even allowing polite applause on this occasion. However, the more I think about this rationally, the more I have to conclude that any ill feelings I have toward Derek Jeter have almost nothing to do with him as a player or person.

Sure, Jeter has always hit well against the Mets, and he did some serious damage in the 2000 World Series, to the point of being the series MVP. But if I’m being honest, I can’t say he’s ever been a dick about this, certainly not in the way that Chipper Jones has. Jeter hit almost as well at the Mets’ former home as Larry did, but you can’t imagine Jeter pulling a total fuck-you move like naming his kid Shea.

It’s too easy to say a reflexive dislike of Jeter has to do with The Whole Yankees Thing, and also unfair. Granted, the organization itself exudes a great deal of self-righteous pomposity, a belief that their success bestows a spiritual superiority upon everyone associated with it. And despite the team’s long and storied history, it fosters an odd myopia that believes not only can This Year’s Model be equivalent to (or better than) previous vintages, but it must. They own a dichotomy in which their past must be both celebrated and destroyed every season. It’s this kind of attitude that leads to hiring John Sterling as your play-by-play man.

Despite this, Jeter has always struck me as someone who appreciates what it means to play for the Yankees in an organic way. He understands what he means to fans and his role in their history in a way that is neither forced nor heavy-handed.

I’ve realized that my instant recoil at the mention of Jeter’s name comes from the same place that inspired this tweet, written seconds after Jeter’s 3000th hit:

It’s the collective sports press who have soured me on Jeter, with their constant touting of his shining, god-like status, a reverence that has grown in inverse proportional with his diminishing skills. Just witness this column by Ian O’Connor over at If you read this piece without the slightest idea of what baseball was, you’d assume Jeter was Gandhi + Mother Teresa x Martin Luther King Jr. It is so ridiculously over the top that I almost checked the obits, because it’s the kind column you’d expect to read after somebody dies.

I thought I mocked Jeter on this site plenty of times over the years, but looking back on these posts, I realize I was really mocking the media’s portrayal of him. It’s not Derek Jeter’s fault that The New York Times wants to write articles about people who name dogs after him, as if this is news. Or that anyone who dares suggest he might not deserve all those Gold Gloves is sniped at by the cranky doyens of the baseball press.

Since Jeter’s entire career has played out during my adult life (college and thereafter), I can recall a time when he was considered “simply” a great player, one of a crop of shortstops who revolutionized what was expected of the position. (To illustrate how long ago this was, Rey Ordonez was once included in that group.)

He was a superstar almost immediately, on and off the field. (Regarding the latter, dating Mariah Carey will do that for you.) But it was a very long time before he was seen as The Savior of the Yankees, let alone baseball. Even during Jeter’s almost-and-probably-shoulda-been MVP season of 1999, he was one star among many and not yet considered Our Fearless Leader. At the time, Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, and Bernie Williams would have received that title before he did. Reading accounts of the Yankees’ exploits from this era reaffirms this; this trio provided the go-to quotes for the scribes just as much, if not more often, than did Jeter.

For those who don’t want to dig around the newspaper archives of yesteryear (I think only I have this disease), Buster Olney’s The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty provides similar testimony. Though not about Jeter, it of course talks about him at length. Olney’s book paints Jeter as an extremely mature young man, confident in the spotlight, able to keep the team loose, and deft at drawing in the peripheral figures in the clubhouse.

For the most part, Olney’s account is complimentary. However, since it was written in 2004, it seems almost blasphemous when compared to more recent accounts. It does not see him as the only leader on the team, and does not picture him with rays of heavenly light shining from the top of his head, views of him that would be unfathomable nowadays.

When did this change? The aforementioned 2000 World Series MVP award helped propel him beyond the humble confines of mere superstar. The 2001 playoffs were the first time people began to think he might possess magic powers; see: his insane flip play at the plate against Oakland and his “Mr. November” home run against Arizona. This is when he began his ascent to celebrity beyond the game, a megastar with an endless series of endorsements and overall media ubiquity (such as an appearance on SNL). But Jeter didn’t truly ascend to the pantheon until two very big things happened:

  1. The other stars from the championship teams began to drift off (O’Neill) or fade away (Williams). The biggest change came when Roger Clemens “retired” after the 2003 season (only to resurface in Houston). His outsized, He Who Must Not Be Denied personality overwhelmed the Yankee clubhouse since he arrived in 1999. With The Rocket gone, Jeter was the undisputed king of athletes in New York–and therefore, the media.
  2. Steroids, or the revelation thereof. As more and more illusions were shattered, and more ex-stars exposed as the product of advanced chemistry (including some of his former teammates), Jeter was increasingly pointed to as the consummate anti-PED player, the guy who did things the right way.

To be fair, the elevation of Jeter to something beyond a mere baseball player couldn’t happen if he wasn’t a viable candidate for the position. He wasn’t just drafted into icon-hood. He played for the most successful franchise in sports history, in the media capital of the nation, and also possessed matinee idol looks and chick magnetism. Combine this with the fact Jeter was really good at baseball for a really long time, and it makes sense that he would receive mega-ultra-superstar status.

The problem is, being really good at baseball isn’t good enough to baseball writers. They, unique among reporters in any other field, possess the need to believe in something. Jeter is the thing they choose to believe in, and they evangelize for him with the fervor of a race of super-Jehovah’s Witnesses.

This is one of the most crippling aspects of baseball, something that keeps it ossified: A belief that it is something more than entertainment. Watch the intro to a football game, and you will hear loud rock and/or hip-hop music alongside pictures of enormous dudes hitting each other. No one believes in football; they just enjoy it. Now watch the intro to a baseball game and what do you see? A sunset across the prairie, fathers playing catch with their sons, melancholy piano music. There is an almost religious aspect to it, and not in a good way. I mean in the rote repetition of prayers and hymns, a ritual no one quite understands but goes through every once in a while around the holidays because we’re supposed to.

Along the way, Jeter ceased to be a mere baseball player. He became a security blanket for sportswriters to cling to, someone who could reassure them that their jobs didn’t involve covering total frauds. The media began to chant his name as a magic spell to ward off evil spirits. Every time someone didn’t hustle, Derek Jeter had to be mentioned as someone who would never dog it. Every time some former slugger was caught with his hand in the steroid cooke jar, Jeter was mentioned as someone who would never do such a thing. Whenever a high-priced teammate failed in the clutch, it had to be mentioned that Jeter always elevated his game in the big moments. (Which begs the question: If he could actually will himself a hit, why would he ever make an out?)

For non-Yankee fans and non-sportswriters who managed to enjoy baseball without him, the constant invocation of Jeter grew tiresome and infuriating, particularly if you lived in New York. Everyone the Mets signed or produced in the last 7-8 years has been compared unfavorably to Jeter (Jose Reyes especially), as if failure to be Jeter meant failure period.

In the past few seasons, Jeter’s skills have slowly begun to erode. And yet, if anything, he is revered even more than ever. There are grown men who write for newspapers who still insist he’s still one of the best players in the game when he is clearly not. People who blamed Alex Rodriguez for the Yankees’ postseason struggles while Jeter hit far worse and went unscathed in the press. People who defend voting him to start in the All Star Game when he’s suffering through his worst offensive year yet because he “knows how to win”. Voters who give him one Gold Glove after another even though his range–always suspect–has deteriorated to a pitiful extent.

This is in part because other formerly unimpeachable sports figures have proven too human (Brett Favre, Tiger Woods), and he is pretty much the only “hero” left. Amazingly, in a culture that delights in tearing down the famous, he remains untouched. But it’s also because sportswriters have exalted his name for so long, to do otherwise is unthinkable.

Just read the O’Connor article. Its money line: After Jeter hit his home run, “We were young again.” Jeter was exhausted after his 3000th hit because he wasn’t doing it for himself. Jeter must remain forever productive, forever smiling, forever young so that O’Connor and all his scribe brethren can.

Having written all of this, I would deny no one a genuine appreciation of Jeter, such as this one penned at Deadspin. As for me, I feel like there is probably a very interesting, compelling story about someone who remained in the glaring spotlight for so long yet stayed unknown to all but a very small group of people. From a distance, it strikes me as Mickey Mantle meets Joe DiMaggio: The man about town everyone wants a piece of but who won’t let anyone get too close. His relationship with Alex Rodriguez alone is enough for a Game of Thrones-sized conflict.

I fear we’ll never read that story, however, because gods don’t have conflicts, merely triumphs. This viewpoint is necessary for religion, but intensely boring for entertainment. None of this is the fault of Derek Jeter the person or the player. But Jeter ceased to be either a long time ago.