Growing up, I was a gigantic Yankees fan. I watched the first several innings of every game on MSG and would fall asleep every night in the summer listening to John Sterling and Michael Kay call the games on WABC. By age 8, I had read two Mickey Mantle biographies and was firmly entrenched in the team’s history. While I have since drifted away from following the organization and the sport, there is a special place in my heart for the late-90s Yankees. Obviously, Derek Jeter’s great performances fall right in the middle of all these memories.
Batting .314 as a rookie in 1996, Jeter was immediately a formidable force and was destined to be a stalwart in pinstripes as I transitioned from a child to an adolescent to an adult. He batted .361 and scored 12 runs in the 1996 playoffs as the Yankees won their first World Series since 1978.
Solid in the regular season, Jeter always seemed to raise his game in the playoffs. From the infamous Jeffrey Maier home run in 1996 to his famous flip play and Mr. November home run in 2001 with countless clutch performances both in between and after, Jeter undeniably had a flair for the dramatic. Reaching 3,000 hits this past Saturday was a significant milestone in a truly great career. That Jeter hustles out every ground ball with fervent urgency and is seemingly unflappable only serves to enhance his legacy.
While Jeter was the young, dynamic, quintessential Yankee, he was not my favorite player on those great Yankee teams. I always preferred David Cone, David Wells, and Paul O’Neill because their emotions and energy seemed so much more human. Although Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte were calm and understated, their mannerisms and personalities seemed much more genuine. Far from not liking him, I just never really loved Jeter in the unconditional way that 10-year olds love their first favorite athletes.
As we have become tired of fawning sportswriters and commentators overrating Jeter’s intangibles to such a nauseating degree and he has won one undeserved gold glove after another, Jeter has quite possibly fallen into the class of being so overrated by the media that he is underrated by the general public. In yesterday’s Grantland column, Jonah Keri, a balanced and thoughtful authority on baseball and its history, wrote, “On the day he retires, he’ll go down as one of the greatest players ever to play the game, perhaps the third-best shortstop.” Because we have become so accustomed to filtering out the hyperbole when it comes to the media’s
lusting over coverage of Jeter, it is easy to forget that his on-field accomplishments objectively qualify him to be considered in the pantheon of the all-time greats.
That Jeter has perpetually gone out of his way to avoid ever saying anything interesting or of substance leads me to believe that for his whole career he has made calculated attempt to optimize positive coverage of him. This approach has quite clearly worked. Writing and speaking about the character that Jeter has cultivated is much easier than approaching him critically. Portraying him as a figure whose effort, personality, and achievements are beyond reproach fits the mythological narrative that cause those who cover sports to paint our athletes as role models that children should aspire to become.
As such, many of Jeter’s lapses as a teammate–of which we are supposed to believe that he is the ultimate–have been largely forgotten. In 1999, he fraternized and was seen laughing with Alex Rodriguez, then a Seattle Mariner, during a bench-clearing brawl. Teammate Chad Curtis, whom Jeter had had other run-ins with, took exception to this. When Rodriguez became a Yankee, he was relegated to third base even though he was a better-fielding shortstop than Jeter. If Jeter saw himself in a realistic light and truly cared about the Yankees’ winning above all else, he would have volunteered to play a different position.
Over the course of A-Rod’s tenure with the Yankees, it has been clear to neutral observers that Jeter still holds a grudge stemming from A-Rod’s infamous comments to GQ in 2000 that Jeter “never had to lead.” As Rodriguez struggled in pinstripes, Jeter passive aggressively opted not come to his defense as he had before done for Jason Giambi. Rodriguez has famously thrived under circumstances where he felt less pressure. Where Jeter could have eased Rodriguez’s transition to the Bronx, he instead chose to harbor personal resentment which may or may not have come at the expense of team success.
This past offseason, Jeter made a concerted attempt to use the media to curry public favor for him to be paid significantly above market value based on past performance. Even after getting paid vastly more than any other team would offer and, beyond that, what his projected future performance would be worth, Jeter insinuated that he felt insulted and betrayed by the negotiations process which he and his agent had just objectively dominated. Moreover, if the Yankees had not shown time and again that they essentially have a license to print money, I would argue that, in demanding to be so grossly overpaid, Jeter once again hurt his team’s chances of victory in pursuit of personal vanity in constricting the team’s budget to sign other players.
The purpose of bringing these examples to light is not to discredit Jeter’s prodigious achievements; it is to present a balanced portrayal of a legendary player whose personal flaws have been both greater and more overt than we are led to believe by many who cover baseball. Like most great professional athletes, I believe that Jeter has aspired to greatness not just by natural talent but by a narcissistic gene which relentlessly drives him to achieve. I do not believe that there is necessarily anything wrong with this but it is offensive when those who are supposed to be unbiased willfully ignore eminently available evidence in favor perpetuating an incomplete narrative.