Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why Derek Jeter matters

THE NEW YORK Yankees pulled Derek Jeter from Saturday’s game against the Boston Red Sox. A bad hamstring got him sidelined, but only briefly. He’s expected to play today, which will be a good thing. After today, there is no tomorrow for Jeter in Fenway Park. After the 2014 regular season ends today, there’s no tomorrow for Jeter in Yankee Stadium. Not as a player, anyway.

After 20 seasons as a New York Yankee, Derek Sanderson Jeter is retiring from major league baseball. As if you didn’t know: this year has been crowded with tributes to “the Captain,” from opposing teams (players and management), the media, advertisers, celebrities and every fan of the game too young to remember other players with better stats, longer careers, more coverage in the press.

In our nonstop, stats-driven world — where metrics seem to dominate everything and data appears to decide everything important — Jeter’s pending retirement has led to the inevitable comparisons between his lifetime numbers and other great players who hung 'em up. The contrarian personalities among us have already started the Jeter image deflation machine. In their sad rush to the hard, flat comfort of numbers, they’ve missed much of the point — of baseball, and Derek Jeter, and us, and why the Captain matters to us.

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It’s true that it can be hard to step away from metrics when you’re talking about baseball, a game that lives and dies by numbers: innings pitched, on-base percentage, hits, walks, RBIs, ERAs, WARs, BBs ... and on and on. And some people are more driven by those numbers than others.

Leave it to that walking calculator Keith Olbermann, host of ESPN’s “Olbermann,” to get that point across. All season long, in what we’ve known for months would be Jeter’s final season, Olbermann has conducted his own farewell tour for Jeter, letting his viewers know at every opportunity just how good Jeter was not.

It’s been happening all year, on and off, Olbermann taking opportunities to push back on what he sees as a valedictory mythology taking shape in Jeter’s twilight, and to rip the praises from fans and other teams — running down Jeter as if all the tributes coming his way were somehow Jeter’s idea. Olbermann really let the mud fly on Tuesday night: “"Contrary to what you have heard, Derek Jeter is not the greatest person in human history. He did not invent baseball, he did not discover electricity, he is not the greatest shortstop who ever lived. And among all the terrific players in the history of the New York Yankees he is not, by any measure, number one.”

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WHAT FOLLOWED was a crash course in how to gauge the cost of everything and the value of nothing. With his customary snark and bite, Olbermann recited the Baseball-Reference Guide chapter-and-verse comparisons that proved Jeter was middlebrow at best. He wasn’t fit to tie Ozzie Smith’s Nikes, he never won an MVP accolade, he never led the league in homers or RBIs; he was the team captain when the Yankees suffered two American League Championship Series defeats and five American League division losses; he was the team leader when the Yankees suffered the defeat that still stings in Yankee fans’ hearts: the loss of the American League Championship Series to the Red Sox in 2004, when the Yankees blew a 3-0 ALCS series lead.

Olbermann had company. Ted Berg at USA Today started back in February. “Jeter’s offensive game is driven by singles and marked by perennially high batting averages. He hits some homers, but his relative lack of power means he has only cracked the Top 10 in AL OPS (on-base plus slugging) once in his career.”

Jason Kiedel at CBS2 New York said: “While Jeter is a first-ballot icon whose plaque in Cooperstown and acreage in Monument Park are assured, he was never the best player in the sport, is far from the best player in Yankees history and wasn’t always the best player on his own team.”

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But Kiedel also got at some of what Olbermann overlooked about Jeter: “He was not great at anything, but really good at everything. We so lust for the sexy stat — the home run, touchdown and three-pointer — that we just don’t get turned on by the sprawling career of consistent production.”

Right, Jason. Let’s pay that proper respect to endurance and longevity — like we did when Baltimore Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr. was rightly celebrated for playing in 2,632 consecutive straight games. In a time when players move from team to team with jarring irregularity, never around long enough to be a fan favorite, Jeter stayed put with the Yankees, a team known for being demanding in a city that’s never anything but demanding.

Since he debuted in May 1995 with the Yankees — the only team he’d ever play for — Jeter has 3,463 hits (not counting what happens today), five World Series championships, and five Gold Gloves. He was named an All-Star 14 times, and he’s No. 6 all-time in hits (he tied Honus Wagner back in August). That kind of stability with any one team is admirable; to do that with the Yankees, in the white-hot glare of the most irascible fans and media market in the country, is not much short of a miracle.

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KIEDEL GOES on to mention something else. Something important: “The most important point that Olbermann missed — and it must be an intentional omission, because he’s too savvy to miss something so obvious — is that Jeter, unlike 80 percent of his peers, did not take steroids.

“So it’s not fair to just belch the bromides about power numbers without acknowledging that he is one of the few who did it fairly. Look at Jeter’s physique. He never became Brady Anderson, never gained or lost 30 pounds of muscle in one offseason. His body never morphed into the cartoonish contours of Bonds, McGwire, Sosa or A-Rod.

“And that’s an essential distinction. Jeter played old-school baseball by the original rules. ... He is the embodiment of the cliché — doing it the right way.”

And that begins to address what Olbermann and other critics choose to miss: Jeter knows good and well he’s not the greatest shortstop who ever lived. He knows he’s not the greatest New York Yankee who ever lived.

And he never said he was. He never even pretended he was. Day to day over 20 seasons, Derek Jeter was nothing more or less than the very best Derek Jeter he could be. Many days that was stellar. Many other days, well, it was not. Color Jeets human.

Years ago, in the Ken Burns “Baseball” series, the legendary sportswriter Roger Angell observed that “there’s more Met than Yankee in all of us.” Sooner or later, that has to be as true for an actual New York Yankee as it is for anyone else.

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Olbermann and others are so overly focused on the data that defines the game that they miss the magic that inspires the game, the magic that makes baseball more than punching up an equation on a calculator or conjuring an Excel spreadsheet, or anything else you do with numbers.

That magic was there in Yankee Stadium on Thursday night. Thursday’s game against the Orioles was the only home game Jeter ever played with his team already knocked out of playoff contention. Yankee closer David Robertson gave up a two-run homer in the top of the ninth to Oriole Adam Jones, and a tying shot to Steve Pearce with two outs.

When the Yankees came up, Jose Pirela hit a leadoff single in the bottom of the ninth against Orioles reliever Evan Meek, moving to second on Brett Gardner's sac bunt. Gardner Pirela was replaced on second by pinch-runner Antoan Richardson.

Then it was Jeter Time. With Meek’s very next pitch, Jeter punched a single to deep right field. Richardson flew in from second base, sliding home ahead of Nick Markakis' throw.

Yankees 6, Orioles 5.

On the 46th anniversary of Mickey Mantle's last game, with one swing of the bat, Jeter invested a mathematically meaningless game with nothing less than a memory that’ll last as long as the game of baseball does. And somewhere in Thursday’s crowd of 48,613 people, some little kid, a first-timer at Yankee Stadium, watched that Jeter hit and the crowd and the power of the event ... and believed. Not in math, but in the magic that adults try to pretend doesn’t exist.

Look for that on the stat sheet, Keith. Good luck, and good luck.

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OK, the Movado watch and the golden Nike shoes with Jeter stats were over the top, and the deal with Steiner Collectibles — get a sock worn by the Captain for $410! — was waaay over the top. Point taken.

But that’s just commerce in action. What lasts, what’s not a limited-edition experience are the X factors Olbermann hasn’t paid enough attention to: Like respect. The respect Jeter’s earned from his fans by way of the respect he’s shown the game.

That respect is necessarily burnished with the symbolism of What He Means. To the team. To the game. What Jeter meant to this country in the days and weeks of deep fear after 9/11, when we needed the continuity of his career. What Jeter means to black players and fans, as the first lone black captain in the Yankees’ 113-year history.

“You’re not replacing him,” teammate Chase Headley told USA Today’s Bob Nightengale. “You might as well just acknowledge that and not try to, because it's not possible. To become that type of leader, and become that respected in the clubhouse, there's nobody that's obviously done it that long and done it the way he's done it. Next year, there will be different year. Different players, different personalities. But you’re not replacing what that guy does. You just can’t.”

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WHEN YOU love baseball, you accept the need to balance the actuarial and the intangible, the abstract and the concrete. You wrestle with reconciling numbers and passion, statistics and heart. When you truly embrace the game, you realize that you never get one without the other. The contradictories coexist in baseball. They damn well better.

Derek Jeter understood that, and he made his peace with what the game demanded of him, what it demands of everyone. He never transformed into the Incredible Hulk in pinstripes. There were no domestic violence embarrassments. No compromising selfies or videos on 4chan. No midnight perp walks or ghoulish mug shots.

For 20 seasons, tree-ring time and an eternity in baseball, he went about his business and never put his business in the street. He kept his counsel, he STFU and let his playing do the talking, and he was the best he knew how to be. And in that process, Jeter conferred his own majesty on the game, and on us, in an era when shortcuts and deception have been all too common in baseball, and in modern life. He symbolized the best that’s in all of us. And that, fiercely, matters.

Image credits: Jeter top: via NBC News. Olbermann: ESPN. Jeter draft-ppick baseball card: Topps via ESPN. Yankee fan and sign: Jeter bottom: Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports.

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