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Derek Jeter’s greatest feat? Staying irrepressibly likeable as a Yankee (and baseball) icon

Feb 13, 2014, 6:57 AM EDT

jeter-reuiters Reuters

SOCHI – When Derek Jeter made his major league debut in 1995, there was no Facebook. There was nothing that suggested there would ever be a Facebook. The internet was a dial-up puzzle. Founder Mark Zuckerburg was an 11-year-old son of a dentist and psychiatrist, and he was just beginning to write programs in BASIC.

Heck, DVDs had not been invented.

In other words, Derek Jeter began playing baseball in a very different America, a very different world, when newspapers told the story of baseball, when no words crawled along the bottom of television screens, when being social meant talking to people. There are countless words and letters and phrases – iPhone, blog, tweet, smh, Droid, OPS (as statistic), Yahoo! (as noun), the cream, high-def TV, lol, iPad, replacement player, Bieber, Google (as verb), Deadspin, Moneyball – that would have sounded like absolute gibberish to Jeter at the beginning.

And yet, those are some of the words that defined his time. And him.

“I know they say when you dream you eventually wake up,” Jeter wrote Wednesday on his Facebook page as he announced his 2014 retirement. “Well for some reason I’ve never had to wake up.”

* * *

Think of the magic trick Derek Jeter pulled off. He was, for most of his life, the most visible athlete in New York City. Kim Basinger called him a hunk. He was on the cover of GQ and eligible and obscenely rich. Reggie Jackson said he’d trade his own past for Jeter’s future. He was given a $189 million contract when he was 26 years old, and he was named the Yankees team captain just two years later.

When something awesome in baseball happened, he was often in the frame. The dive. The flip. The November homer. Every step he made was a potential backpage for the New York tabloids, every word he said might make Twitter explode. He was exalted to the heavens by his fans, detested to his core by opposing fans. He was the most visible man in a game that had such a deep steroid problem that it would get dragged before Congress. He had more hosannas thrown his way than any player of his time, and he never won an MVP award though he probably deserved a couple.

And all the while, he stayed utterly (and, to some, maddeningly) admirable.

Look at some of the greatest players of his time. Alex Rodriguez: Disgraced. Barry Bonds: Disgraced. Mark McGwire: Disgraced. Manny Ramirez: Disgraced. Albert Pujols: Floundering. Ken Griffey: Tumbled in late career. Jeff Bagwell: Can’t get elected to the Hall of Fame. Mike Piazza: Can’t get elected to the Hall of Fame.

And through all of it, Jeter soared – not only as a player but also as a modern day icon. Has any player since Cal Ripken or Hank Aaron or Joe DiMaggio been so respected simply for being himself?

When Alex Rodriguez caused that stir by walking across Dallas Braden’s pitching mound, what did Braden do? He said A-Rod should learn some respect from Derek Jeter.

When Hanley Ramirez got in to trouble for loafing after a ball, what did his manager Fredi Gonzalez say? That he wished all talented players were like Derek Jeter, but such dreams are just not realistic.

“You know, I really didn’t get Derek Jeter,” a player named Aaron Guiel told me a few years ago. “I mean, sure, you see him across the way, you know he’s a great player, great leader, all that stuff.  And then I came to play for the Yankees, and I saw it firsthand. He’s different from anybody else. The guy does so many things to help the team that you can’t even count them all.”

Guiel  said that the first day he came to the Yankees, Jeter came over, introduced himself and talked about how happy he was that Guiel was on the team. But more, he talked about how excited he was because he knew Guiel would help the team. “He knew a lot about me,” Guiel said, with some wonder in his voice.

Jeter answered a million questions from reporters – at least half of them inane, all of them repeats – and he answered them politely. Blandly but politely. He deflected negativity with the same ease with which he flicked singles to right field. He uttered clichés with energy, giving the words a little more power. The Yankees clubhouse had more multi-millionaires (and accompanying giant egos) than any in baseball, but  it never devolved into a poisonous place like so many others. The reason was Jeter. A Derek Jeter team, by definition, would be professional.

And his professionalism towered over everything.  When Alex Rodriguez took some shots at him in a magazine, it could have become a thing. It didn’t. When Rodriguez came to the Yankees and only one could play shortstop, it could have become a thing. It didn’t. When Jeter’s love life became public – with Mariah Carey or Miss Universe or Minka Kelly – it could have become a thing. It didn’t. When George Steinbrenner took a shot at Jeter for staying out too late one night during the season, it could have become a thing. It didn’t. When it seemed like everyone in baseball was being suspected of steroid use, any rumor could have become a thing. It didn’t.

His defense – despite him winning five Gold Gloves – was savaged on the Internet. That too could have become a thing. It didn’t.

And it didn’t because of Jeter’s constancy — play hard every day, run the bases hard every day, be polite every day, speak positively every day. He was the waves beating against the shore. He hit .300 every year. He scored 100 runs every year. He played 150 games every year. He led a playoff team every year. He became Twitter proof, statistic-proof,  scandal proof. In this new social, bloggy, TMZ, 24-hour world, Derek Jeter’s magic trick was not getting 3,316 or scoring 1,876 runs or being shortstop for five World Series champions.

It was staying irrepressibly likeable.

* * *

So now, Derek Jeter has announced on Facebook that he will play just one more year. Of course he will be celebrated in every city. Millions of words about his brilliant career will spill out. A “Derek Jeter is overrated” backlash will undoubtedly gain momentum as the year goes on too. Then a backlash to the backlash.

But, in the middle of it all, in his own quiet way, Derek Jeter will be doing one of the hardest things a great athlete has to do. He will wind down. The saying goes that great men die twice – once as great and again as men. And while there will be this big, public celebration for the most significant baseball player of our time, there will also be a quiet realization within him that the end is near.

Jeter won’t let us in on that. He never did let people in too close. That, I suspect, was part of his genius. When he was a boy, his father Charles – an Army man – would have young Derek sign a contract of expectations. There was a standard to live by.  He came into an analog baseball world and he left with a letter to his fans on Facebook. He never fell for the praise or gave in to the criticism. The standard never changed. And, all the while, he kept the important stuff for himself.

  1. cur'68 - Feb 13, 2014 at 7:51 AM

    I think its the bit about not believing his press that keeps him so aware and able to cope. Whatever it is, there’s no doubt that he was a smooth operator. Hardly a misstep, even with a life lived in the public eye. No small trick, that.

    • j0esixpack - Feb 13, 2014 at 10:25 PM

      The premise of this HBT article is spot on. Jeter even earned the respect of fans in Boston for cryin’ out loud.

      That July day in 2004 pretty much ended any Boston boasts that they had the better SS in Garciapara (who, admittedly did have a more active bat for awhile)

      But that day, with Nomar sulking on the bench (soon to be traded on the way to the 2004 World Series Championship) Jeter showed them what a true Hall of Fame bound SS does when there’s a chance to catch a foul ball for an out

      http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2011/writers/dan_shaughnessy/06/14/jeter.boston/

      I’ll give Boston fans credit too – they know well played baseball when they see it and that’s what Jeter gave pretty much every night. You gotta appreciate that.

    • j0esixpack - Feb 13, 2014 at 10:31 PM

      Bats, they are sick. cannot hit curveball. Straightball hit very much. Curveball, bats are afraid.

      Jobu come, take fear from bats. offer him cigar, rum. He will come.

      Jesus, I like him very much, but he no help with curveball.

  2. jdubfla - Feb 13, 2014 at 7:53 AM

    My Opinion. He is so respected by the majority of baseball fans as he has never used his mouth to promote himself. And he has not bought into the ESPN hype machine. Or at least he isn’t an active participant. You know ESPN…the tigertigertigerlebronlebronlebronheatheatheat network.

  3. spillz121 - Feb 13, 2014 at 8:11 AM

    A class act

  4. 6stn - Feb 13, 2014 at 8:13 AM

    He’s a class act. But is anybody else tired of hearing the terms “icon,” and “iconic,” over and over again? Those words are everywhere! Use legendary, or symbolic, just stop saying icon! Please, STOP!

    • rpearlston - Feb 13, 2014 at 12:42 PM

      I guess you watched CBS this past Sunday evening if you’ve heard those words too often. They are important and valuable words, and there are situations and people for which’whom they are rightfully used. In both that case in Derek Jeter’s they are not wrong.

    • rpearlston - Feb 13, 2014 at 12:44 PM

      I guess you watched CBS this past Sunday evening if you’ve heard those words too often. They are important and valuable words, and there are situations and people for which’whom they are rightfully used. In both that case and Derek Jeter’s, they are not wrong.

  5. favrewillplay4ever - Feb 13, 2014 at 8:38 AM

    Trying not to be a Yankee homer, I believe , in a generation or two, everyone will look back at his legacy in awe.

    Statistically, others will undoubtedly pass his accomplishments (records are meant to be broken, after all), but with how social media has grown and effected everyone or at least everyones’ beliefs towards others, Jeter will be the Prime example of what others wish to fall.

    How he’s been able to remain a professional in the largest market and held the ability to “never say the wrong thing” is truly remarkable.

    My Yanks have had a number of polarizing players with numerous accomplishments, but the player I’m most proud of to have been a Yankee is Jeter.

  6. apkyletexas - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:11 AM

    Good ballplayer, but I never really bought into his public-persona shtick. Reminded me of squidward for some reason.

    • basedrum777 - Feb 13, 2014 at 11:11 AM

      To say nothing of the Texas Educational system.

  7. unclemosesgreen - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:14 AM

    Jeter is a leader. For me the iconic Jeter moment will always be the black eye catch. That was ARod’s ball but he had a bad case of Abreu Wall-shy syndrome. Jeter’s hustle, desire, and leadership were all on display in that moment. When I’ve forgotten how to feed myself I will probably still remember that catch.

  8. cackalackyank - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:17 AM

    My mind is already boggling at the thought of MLB, never mind the NYY without Derek Jeter. I knew this was coming, even thought it was a good idea for him to do it at this point. Now that he has announced it, and it is real, it feels weird.

  9. hep3 - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:19 AM

    I have never been a Yankees fan and I always thought that if Jeter was such a great “team guy” he should have offered to move off shortstop to accommodate the better defensive shortstop at the time, Rodriguez.

    After all we have found out in the last ten years, much of it we never wanted to know, I can say I was wrong. Baseball is much more than the best person at his best position.

    Derek Jeter is THE all-time Yankees Shortstop. Period.

    • rpearlston - Feb 13, 2014 at 12:54 PM

      Of this generation. You’re forgetting Scooter (Rizzuto), And everything that you’ve said about Jeter and his ethos was also said about Joe DiMaggio. It’s also the type of stuff being said about Frank Thomas,

      • hep3 - Feb 13, 2014 at 3:58 PM

        I did not forget Rizzuto or Kubek or Crosetti or even Bucky Dent. Rizzuto was a fine, beloved man, a great defensive shortstop on some great teams, but I get the feeling that if he didn’t play for those great Yankee teams he would have been just another good fielding, .270 hitting player.

        I get the feeling Jeter would have been a star anywhere

  10. thefugitivekind - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:26 AM

    Joe -

    Loved the Jeter post but I disagree with one of your assertions: that Jeter was “detested to his core by opposing fans”. Do you really think so?

    I’ve been a Red Sox fan for nearly fifty years. I’ve had more than ample opportunity to hear every iteration of “Yankees Suck”. (There are surprisingly few, and those few sadly unimaginative, though the “Yankees Suck” series of tv commercials was pretty funny.)

    I have never comprehended hatred for an opponent in a sporting event. I usually ignore it and say nothing, but I have heard the Red Sox-Yankees thing for so long that I have had to develop some kind of response to it.

    I’ve got it down to two arguments. The first is rational. It seldom has any effect whatsoever but I’m fond of rationality and I have to put it out there for my own self-respect. But over the years the second argument seems to have worked about seventy per cent of the time.

    The sequence runs something like this:

    Fellow Red Sox Fan (for the fifth or sixth time): F**kin’ Yankees. They all suck. Hate those sons o’ bitches.

    Me (Trying Argument Number One): Aw, c’mon man. It’s a game. It’s supposed to be fun. You’re supposed to get all excited and get into a pleasurable state of anxiety, really really wanting your team to win. How can you feel those good feelings if you’re always working up a hatred?

    Fellow Red Sox Fan: F**k it. Yankees Suck. Hate every one of those bastards.

    Me (Argument Number Two): Derek Jeter?

    Fellow Red Sox Fan: (Pauses) Awright….ok….yeh….Jeter.

    • rpearlston - Feb 13, 2014 at 1:05 PM

      I root for a different team, but I agree with every word that you’ve said.

      Too many people think of the away team (of any team for which they do not cheer) as the enemy instead of as the opponent. In Canada (which has a parliamentary system of government) the lead of the larget opposition party isn’t referred to in an adversarial fashion, but instead has the official title of “Leader of Her/(His) Majesty’s LOYAL (emphasis added) Opposition. And the opposition is what they are.

      It’s easy to try to vilify an enemy, but it’s difficult to do/feel the same way about an opponent.

  11. dirtyharry1971 - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:34 AM

    Has anyone ever played an entire 20 year career with the bluejays? I mean maybe someone has but its not ringing a bell with me, when was the last time anyone said they were proud to have spent their entire career in Toronto and retire a bluejay? Besides never? It just came to me this morning as I was eating my breakfast that Bambi just made me, im just asking…Oh well time to hit the gym, maybe it will come to me there…

    • angrytwitterguy - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:40 AM

      Bambi is a strange name for a dude

    • Old Gator - Feb 13, 2014 at 11:45 AM

      Our virtual village idiot is plumbing new depths of imbecile irrelevancy today.

      • Old Gator - Feb 13, 2014 at 11:46 AM

        PS – sorry, dipwit – your five days of credit for being a Clint Eastwood/Steve McQueen fan are up.

      • therooneyskilledwebster - Feb 13, 2014 at 12:45 PM

        No one will ever confuse this piece of ass crack lint with the King of Cool.

    • rpearlston - Feb 13, 2014 at 12:59 PM

      Starting with those men who were already playing in 1977, there have been very, very few men who have played for 20 or more years period, let alone each with only one team. Off the top of my head, they are Cal Ripken Jr, Kirby Puckett, Tony Gwynn, Craig Biggio and (with an asterisk because he wasn’t drafted by them) Jeff Bagwell. I may be missing some, and if so, I apologize to those individuals, and I’m certain that others reading this will offer those corrections.

      That means that, at least statistically (and baseball is a game of statistics), your point is moot.

      • jimbo75025 - Feb 13, 2014 at 4:56 PM

        Kirby didn’t make it 20 because of his eyes. He was up and down for a few years between the minors and majors before catching on for good in 85 or 86. He only made it maybe 13 or 14 years including a few years in the minors.

    • 1historian - Feb 13, 2014 at 5:56 PM

      The Yankees are the (damn) Yankees.

      They play in New York, they have the most storied history in professional sports, they have the best home uniforms, they play in Yankee stadium, they are the most successful franchise in professional sports – I think 26 World Championships, the names of their past stars – Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, etc. And Jeter deserves mention in the same breath.

      AND – win lose or draw – they have the most obnoxious fans.

      No contest.

      • kehnn13 - Feb 13, 2014 at 8:12 PM

        27 World championships :-)

    • dan1111 - Feb 14, 2014 at 6:52 AM

      Has anyone ever played an entire 20 year career with the Yankees?

      No.

      Derek Jeter, assuming he plays one more year and retires as planned, will be the first ever. Despite the fact that the Yankees have existed more than twice as long as the Blue Jays, and benefited from the reserve clause, having total control of their players, for much of that time.

  12. ningenito78 - Feb 13, 2014 at 11:31 AM

    One of the extremely few people I could ever point out to my kids and say ‘be just like THAT’. That’s the highest component I could ever give in my world.

  13. Old Gator - Feb 13, 2014 at 11:44 AM

    “When George Steinbrenner took a shot at Jeter for staying out too late one night during the season, it could have become a thing. It didn’t.”

    Wrong. It became a hilarious beer commercial with Steinbrenner and Jeter (in a tuxedo) and a babe who still haunts my dreams that segued from the Bosses office to a nightclub party that featured the Boss on a conga line. If that isn’t a “thing,” I don’t know what is.

    • rpearlston - Feb 13, 2014 at 1:08 PM

      Becoming a thing would have meant becoming an embarrassment, at the very least. Instead, it was laughed off in a commercial that starred the two men in question.

      • Old Gator - Feb 13, 2014 at 2:16 PM

        Ah, the problem of genre.

        There are many types of thing. There was The Thing. If we stick with that definition, the episode wasn’t a thing unless it was a self-replicating alien vegetable.

        The commercial was a thing-in-itself, although I Kan’t decide if it was more or less of a thing than the episode from which it derived. If that episode wasn’t a thing, what was it – un-thing? For that matter, if a thing-that-isn’t-a-thing falls in the forest and there’s no one there to classify it, does it make a final exam question?

    • moogro - Feb 13, 2014 at 3:12 PM

      One zeug that really sticks out:

      That gal in the visa ad in question who is on screen for 3 seconds is “a babe who still haunts my dreams”

      • Old Gator - Feb 13, 2014 at 3:46 PM

        Three seconds is all it takes. It took Dante half of that to get knocked orf his axis by Beatrice Portinari. See La Vita Nuova. I know exactly how he felt.

        About four times a day.

        And twice that often if I’m strolling on South Beach in the summer.

      • Old Gator - Feb 13, 2014 at 3:50 PM

        PS – yeah, Visa commercial. Thanks. The Boss did the beer commercial with Billy Martin. But only Jeter survived, because as Albert Pujols notes, he runs with the blessed crowd.

  14. 4cornersfan - Feb 13, 2014 at 1:05 PM

    Jeter is the Kaiser Soze of baseball.

    • rpearlston - Feb 13, 2014 at 1:11 PM

      ?

      • Old Gator - Feb 13, 2014 at 2:17 PM

        rpearlston: the greatest trick that Jeter ever pulled was convincing the world that he wasn’t a thing.

      • markdaniel250 - Feb 13, 2014 at 3:00 PM

        ARod wanted to be the unquestioned leader of the Yankees. He realized to be in power you didn’t need home runs or MVPs or gold gloves. You just need the will to do what the other guy wouldn’t. After a while, ARod gets signed by the Yankees. He storms into the Yankee locker room, there to take Jeter’s position. He spits tobacco juice on the floor in front of Jeter’s locker, draws a mustache on the picture of Jeter’s model girlfriend, and waits for Jeter to arrive.
        Jeter walks in the clubhouse, sees his personal space disrespected, his girlfriend’s image defiled. ARod knew Jeter was tough. Not to be trifled with. So he let Jeter know he meant business. He pulled out a giant needle filled with steroids and jabbed it into Jason Giambi’s exposed left buttock.

        He tells Jeter that he taking shortstop – and the Yankee Captaincy.

        Jeter looks into the face of ARod.

        And then he showed this man of will what will really was.

      • Old Gator - Feb 13, 2014 at 3:47 PM

        Point, set and match, Mark. Superbly played!

  15. moogro - Feb 13, 2014 at 1:46 PM

    One thing about this Jeter piece that really sticks out:

    “Kim Basinger called him a hunk.”

    • Old Gator - Feb 13, 2014 at 2:19 PM

      That Basinger called him a hunk never became a thing. And if it never became a thing, did it really happen?

      • Old Gator - Feb 13, 2014 at 2:20 PM

        PS – is it possible that Alec Baldwin left Kim Basinger because she called Derek Jeter a hunk? Or did she call Alex Baldwin a thing? If she had called Derek Jeter a thing, would it have become a thing? Ah, ontology is such a bitch….

  16. aceshigh11 - Feb 13, 2014 at 2:42 PM

    Great commentary from Mr. Posnanski as usual.

    Even as a Red Sox fan, I could never bring myself to hate Jeter. I know some fans did, but it always seemed to me like hating him was the ultimate act of immaturity and especially jealousy.

  17. goodknave - Feb 13, 2014 at 7:44 PM

    We have to listen to this stuff for the next 7 months? Ugh. This is a very good player who was around a long time. The fact that his team had a payroll four times that of other teams means that he should have had more than five rings. If we were in a fantasy football league, and I had 25 players while you had 10, I should win almost every time.

    To say that he is one of the all-time greats is laughable. Yes, he seems to be a good guy, but enough of the canonization of this very good player. It is already tiresome, and will only get worse as the smitten lay rose petals at his feet all season. Gimme a break.

  18. xli2006 - Feb 17, 2014 at 10:39 PM

    Most sports fans HATE the Yankees (or at least dislike them to some degree), but somehow someway almost everyone seems to universally like and respect Jeter.

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