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Joe Posnanski, Derek Jeter and the search for meaning when there really is none

Sep 17, 2010, 9:20 AM EDT

When even the best sportswriter in the business whiffs on the Derek Jeter story, something significant must be going on.

I make no secret of my love of Joe Posnanski’s work. In my view, he’s the best sportswriter going today, bar none. And his column on the Derek Jeter business yesterday was his usual fun, insightful and illuminating work. Some decent analysis of the history of gamesmanship in baseball, talk about the culture of the game and other good stuff.

That is, until towards the end, when he took a turn I wouldn’t have expected him to take:

I don’t think what Jeter did was wrong, not at all, not in baseball
terms. So what was my reaction? Well, I think what Jeter did was kind
of… sad. Has he become so impotent as a hitter — do you realize the guy
now has an 86 OPS+?
– that now he’s willing to hop around and have trainers look at his
forearm when the ball clearly did not hit him? That’s what Derek Jeter
has become? And then afterward, he’s sheepishly defending the move by
saying it’s his job to get on base, well, is that what’s behind the
Derek Jeter aura? Is that what he has stood for all these years?

I just find this really wrongheaded on Joe’s part, because it’s based on the assumption that Jeter wouldn’t have tried to do this kind of thing before now. Which, in light of everything he wrote above about the culture of the game, just doesn’t add up to me. It also seems off because I’ve never seen Posnanski as one of those guys who ascribes that “aura,” as he puts it, to Jeter. To the contrary, he’s always been pretty clear-eyed about the guy, rightfully acknowledging him as one of the best ever, but never going crazy with the “Jeter is a Man Apart” kind of thing so many others have fallen for. We all whiff sometimes, and I think Posnanski whiffed here.

And the source of the whiff, I think — and not just by Posnanski, but by a lot of people on this story — is the reach being made in order to fit the hit-by-pitch thing into a greater narrative.

I’ve really been fixated on that this week by the way — the need to
make what happens on the baseball field fit into a larger story. We saw
it, I think, with Jon Paul Morosi’s awards choices. I think we’re seeing it here too. In this case, the narrative-creation is borne of a need to square the notion of The Great Derek Jeter (a narrative created and fostered by the media for years that exceeds merely admiring his Hall of Fame talents) with the fact that he did something not-so-great on the field (cheating, desperation, gamsemanship, whatever).

Don’t get me wrong: dramatic and personal narrative is an important part of how we all see and understand baseball. All the great baseball books I’ve read involve looking deeper into the personalities and motivations of those who accomplish things on the diamond rather than merely recounting those accomplishments. The hallmark of a great broadcaster like Vin Scully or Ernie Harwell is to tell us a story rather than to merely tell us the score and the count on the batter.

But it’s possible to take such a thing too far. Some things just happen. Some things, rather than defying explanation (and thus begging for one even more) probably don’t even call for explanation in the first place. Or, at the very least, don’t call for one ten minutes after the event.

That’s what I think we have here. Sure, it’s possible that the hit-by-pitch will be important when the final story of Derek Jeter’s career is told. But I kind of doubt it, and as a result I think that a lot of folks, even the most sensible of folks, are having so much trouble as they attempt to fit it in there somewhere.

  1. Brian K - Sep 17, 2010 at 9:28 AM

    This is like Favre throwing an interception in his last throw of the season! JETAH’S MOVIN’ TO MISSISSIPPI!

  2. Largebill - Sep 17, 2010 at 9:33 AM

    In the grand scheme of things it is very minor. He probably has sold 100 times as many calls in the field as he has in the batters box. Personally, I thought the overboard acting was a little bush league. Hey, if the ump screws up and thinks the ball hit ya then you take the base and don’t correct him. However, if it didn’t hit you and you go into a big routine about how much it hurts . . . . . it comes across as weak.

  3. klbader - Sep 17, 2010 at 9:37 AM

    I stand by my comment in yesterday’s thread that this obsession with finding some larger meaning in Jeter’s actions in a function of our society’s pop-cultural obsession with ascribing meaning to trivial things. Jeter’s actions the other night aren’t at all relevant to his legacy or the narrative of his career. His actions were so insignificant — and really, so common in baseball — that they should have been barely noticed.

  4. Wooden U Lykteneau - Sep 17, 2010 at 9:54 AM

    I just find this really wrongheaded on Joe’s part, because it’s based on the assumption that Jeter wouldn’t have tried to do this kind of thing before now.
    Assuming, of course, that that was JoePoz’s assumption, an inference for which there is little, if any, evidence.

  5. Craig Calcaterra - Sep 17, 2010 at 9:57 AM

    Wooden: what part of this passage from Joe’s piece:
    “Well, I think what Jeter did was kind of… sad. Has he become so impotent as a hitter . . . that now he’s willing to hop around and have trainers look at his forearm when the ball clearly did not hit him?”
    Suggests anything to you other than Posnanski saying that Jeter’s act was anything other than a recently-acquired strategy? “Has he now . . “?

  6. Bull Durham - Sep 17, 2010 at 9:58 AM

    Agreed.

  7. Wooden U Lykteneau - Sep 17, 2010 at 10:04 AM

    The part where he asked it (“Has he…”) as a rhetorical question. It doesn’t mean he believes it. The second question (“That’s what…”) reinforces his incredulity, indicating that his rhetorical question is not literal.

  8. Jonny5 - Sep 17, 2010 at 10:04 AM

    “That’s what I think we have here.”
    Before this happened, if you were to take a poll and throw the 10 biggest names in the game out there in a multiple choice format, one being Derek Jeter….. Question: Who here is least likely to fake a HBP and act out in a way that mimicks a fake injury, to get on base? Who do you think 90% of the people answering this question would pick? I think reflexes require it to be Jeter. I think some people are having trouble dealing with the fact that their hero/ role model/ on field leader of the Yankees is a mere mortal who isn’t above pulling a cheesey act to, get on base? “Get on base? He lowered my expecations of him just to get on base? If it was a game winning move like trapping a ball and playing it off as catch to stop the opposing team from scoring the winning run, it would be ok, But to get on base? Egads. He ruined my expectations of how my hero is supposed to conduct himself..”
    And that’s what I think we have here.

  9. Craig Calcaterra - Sep 17, 2010 at 10:08 AM

    If he didn’t think the answer to those questions was “yes” — that Jeter has recently adopted this behavior in response to bad performance — he wouldn’t have said it made him “sad.”

  10. Jonny5 - Sep 17, 2010 at 10:08 AM

    It’s like running into Superman drunk and passed out in the alley with vomit on his “S” and a hooker asking him if he needs the change back for some people.

  11. Kevin S. - Sep 17, 2010 at 10:38 AM

    What’s silly about this kind of narrative is he’s done stuff like this before, and gotten praised for it.
    -
    “Balk!”, anyone?

  12. Jonny5 - Sep 17, 2010 at 11:01 AM

    Of course he feels sad, one of his heros showed he’s mere mortal. Ken Griffey Jr. sleeping during a game cause much sadness with his faithful worshippers. What about the steroid issue? Who recieved the most sadness and outrage again? Bonds, Clemmens, and Mcguire. We all know way more names were on that report, don’t we? Maybe if we held ourselves to the same standards we do these “heros” of ours, the world would be a much better place huh? Or we need to see them for what there really are. Men like you or me. Craig eats his boogers in his basement. I lust for Inez Sainz and want to slap her booty. See, no one is free from flaws, not even Derek “the great and honorable” Jeter. Who also wants to slap Inez Sainz’s booty and has a much greater chance than I do.

  13. Old Gator - Sep 17, 2010 at 11:47 AM

    “I stand by my comment in yesterday’s thread that this obsession with finding some larger meaning in Jeter’s actions in a function of our society’s pop-cultural obsession with ascribing meaning to trivial things.”
    .
    How true, how succinct. Now, let’s take it to the next level: Roland Barthes on food and fashion.

  14. Kevin S. - Sep 17, 2010 at 11:50 AM

    I’m not sure how much familiarity you have with Poz’s work, but Jeter is most certainly NOT one of his heroes.

  15. Paper Lions - Sep 17, 2010 at 12:33 PM

    Exactly. Buck O’Neil = Hero. Jeter = great but overrated SS

  16. Jonny5 - Sep 17, 2010 at 12:45 PM

    “now he’s willing to hop around and have trainers look at his forearm when the ball clearly did not hit him? That’s what Derek Jeter has become? And then afterward, he’s sheepishly defending the move by saying it’s his job to get on base, well, is that what’s behind the Derek Jeter aura? Is that what he has stood for all these years?”
    Ummm, what was this about then? So it seems to him that Jeter stood for more than just getting on base. Sounds like hero material to me, No matter what he said before, he’s saying Jeter stood for a greater cause. What was that? As far as I know he’s a womanizing ball player, and besides that, what else does he stand for? Obviously something more than what he is since it saddened Joe P to see him do something only a mortal ball player would try. He’s saying Jeter is above all that because that’s what HE expects from Jeter.

  17. Maxa - Sep 17, 2010 at 12:55 PM

    The only real “meaning” here is that the culture of gamesmanship in baseball is screwy.

  18. YANKEES1996 - Sep 17, 2010 at 12:58 PM

    This is a tremendous amount of thought and opinion about something that warrants almost no thought whatsoever. If Joe or anyone else was standing in the batters box that night and were told to take their base because of that pitch I really don’t think anyone would have refused. To even begin to think that event has somehow tarnished Jeter is absolutely insane. Tim Kurkjian had a great comment about the entire episode which was “that players have been cheating in baseball for 150 years” and this small event is not going to change anything. Jeter was right and correct in what he did, Joe Maddon was right and correct in what he did and the umpire was right and correct in what he did, now lets move on shall we?

  19. doctorfunke - Sep 17, 2010 at 1:06 PM

    Right. I don’t get all the theatrics. He said that the ump gave him the base, so you throw your bat down and you run to first. Maddon might still come out and argue, but the ump won’t reverse the call. Why the audition for Glee, Derek?

  20. btberry - Sep 17, 2010 at 1:32 PM

    Taking a base because of an uninitiated bad call and taking a base because of absurd theatrics are two completely different things and I understand why Yankees fans here are trying to blur that line since the latter is downright embarrassing. Trying to believe that what Jeter did was either “normal” or “right” is a failed attempt. This obviously isn’t something that is normally seen which is why it is being talked about (thus it is not normal) and if it was a behavior regularly engaged in it would clearly detract for the quality of the game (this it is not right). The irony to me is that the event occurred in the context of the Yankees failing to beat and subsequently losing the division lead to a team with what, 25% of the Yankees payroll? A pathetic move by the captain of a failing team.
    And I can tell you this … if my teenage son pulled this kind of crap in a game I would not tolerate it. There is a right way to play the game and to respect it. Furthermore, if you can’t get on base with baseball skill (acting is not a baseball skill) you shouldn’t be hitting. Lastly, this is the kind of thing that rightfully gets you or your teammates throw at.
    I agree with Joe on his take. I never liked the hype that Jeter got from the mindless Yankees drones, but I had previously admired the approach he had in the clutch. This kind of performance was meditated and belies a newly acquired lack of confidence. And be honest, he really hasn’t looked very good at the plate this year and you will see that this is a new direction he’s taken.

  21. Kevin S. - Sep 17, 2010 at 2:41 PM

    No, that was just about Jeter’s talents as a baseball player – that he didn’t need the dog and pony show, because he was skilled enough to do without it. That isn’t true, by the way – Jeter, like many other players, has long been willing to push ethical boundaries to aid his team, but I took Poz’s post to be in regards to Jeter’s ability slip, not any kind of morality slip.

  22. Jenness05 - Sep 17, 2010 at 3:24 PM

    I agree that the actions in the end run may have been trivial in regards to that game or Jeter’s ‘legacy’, but still. Trivial or not, how can anyone just shrug and say so what? Jeter cheated, bottom line. Is winning that important? I think people are too focused on Jeter, and not the incident in general. Jeter did what most players would do. Cheat to get on base. And that’s sad, trivial or not. We tell our kids to play honorable, but when we become adults, its ok to cheat? Why? Because of all the money? I think that’s an honest question nobody is asking.

  23. YANKEES1996 - Sep 17, 2010 at 4:42 PM

    Oh, excuse me, you were standing in the batters box with Jeter when the play happened or are you speaking from all of your extensive experience at the Major League level? Yankees fans are not trying to do anything and nobody is trying to blurr anything. There have been numerous people that have spoken about this event and most people feel that Jeter did exactly what his job called for, he got on base, and for your information Jeter admitted in the post game interview that the ball hit the bat. But you are not about to give him credit for that admission, right? Your mindless sanctimony is ridiculous and what the hell has payroll got do with a hit by pitch call. “A pathetic move by the captain of a failing team”, let me know when your team gets anywhere close to 27 World Championships or when one of your favorite players comes anywhere close to Jeters’ accomplishments. Derek Jeter has been nothing short of one of baseballs best players and greatest ambassadors in a time when the reputation of baseball has been constantly attacked and ridiculed. The next time you get ready to get on your soapbox and rant about something that you obviously know nothing about, do all of us baseball fans a favor and DON’T!

  24. Sam Lee - Sep 18, 2010 at 12:51 PM

    God I hate “Poz.” Slobbering over LaRussa or his love interest, Pujols, or matching olympic gymnasts in his gyrations to encourage the use of steroids, its awful. Set your sights on quality not sensationalism Craig.

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