Respect – Not #Re2pect – For Derek Jeter

Derek Jeter has left the game of baseball in all the wrong ways.

The on-field product has severely slipped, the 2014 MLB Postseason was just the third time in the last 18 years that Jeter did not play October baseball, and the media send-off missed the mark.

When J.R. Moehringer’s article on Jeter appeared in the October 13 issue of ESPN the Magazine, I was disappointed.

A teary elegy, sobbing the farewell of ‘The Captain’, is a 9000-word behemoth which fails to capture tone and tenor of retirement, as well as why Jeter is great.

To be clear: I usually like J.R. Moehringer’s writing. As the 2013 Guest Editor of Best American Sports Writing – one of my favorite series – he did a phenomenal job in choosing an excellent array of work to read. “Resurrecting the Champ” is also a classic.

But I did not like this profile.

To start off, Moehringer launches into a reflection about death.

He acts as if Jeter is physically wasting away, not just as a ballplayer, but as a person.

He compares Jeter to Lou Gehrig, as if Gehrig’s neurodegenerative disease somehow equates to Derek Jeter naturally aging past his prime.

Speaking statistically, in their last full seasons, Gehrig got on base at a rate 37 points lower than his career average. Jeter’s OBP fell by 73 points. Gehrig was 35; Jeter, 40. Gehrig was gone too soon, Jeter left too late.

The drastic writing – “After his final game at Fenway Park we’ll never see him again” – only serves to build the hype that Jeter will disappear completely once he leaves the field. But in this digital age, no one can truly disappear, except for maybe Steve Bartman.

This abandonment insecurity is even less rational because Jeter’s publicly stated multiple times that he’d like to own a team someday. Plus, he’s already started a book-publishing side business. Most likely we’ll see him.

Then he begins eulogizing Jeter.

“RIP, Captain,” he writes. “Requiéscat in pace, amen.”

We won’t, as Moehringer puts it, see Jeter until the sun burns out.

Doesn’t this seem just a little over-dramatic? Exaggeration, maybe? Doesn’t this seem as if one player has been glorified until he’s bigger than the game?

This summer, Jeter did supersede baseball when before games he received a bronze bat here, some cowboy boots there as well as cuff links, crabs, stadium seats, a paddleboard, and a kayak. Why did everyone start giving him gifts?

Those presents from different MLB franchises are like that distant Aunt who gets you socks. It’s slightly awkward because you don’t want them, but they felt inclined to get you something.

Those presents and the final at bats in each park this season contributed to what Moehringer calls the “Long Goodbye”, giving a name to the agonizingly slow, eight-month crawl around the bases toward retirement.

He admits that it’s mostly been a downer what with the severe drop-off in individual production and team’s futility. But, it has been broken up by special moments – Nike and Gatorade’s ad spots, the All-Star game, and what Moehringer perfectly calls the five goodbyes. Still, those special moments were few, far between, and lessened by their volume.

Moehringer mentions how he hears everyone around the stadium talking about how Jeter’s final days are ‘bittersweet’.

“The Long Goodbye was not sweet. It was bitter,” Moehringer writes. “And now it’s sad. Period.”

I’m not saying Jeter’s departure is not sad, because it is, but it’s not as one-sided as Moehringer claims.

He says the term ‘bittersweet’ is “soulless”, but he couldn’t be more wrong.

The word ‘bittersweet’ is a perfect description. There’s something to be said for mourning the final days of watching something you loved, but knowing it’ll all change.

Yes, it was sad to see Derek Jeter leaving the field for the last time, but it wasn’t all despair.  It was enjoyable to see that tug on the brim of the cap, that punchy swing, the grace at shortstop.

It’s a lot like college. I left my home of 18 years two months ago to come to Syracuse. I vividly remember my last day at home, of living there. It was sad. I’m close with my family and I love my house – I still call it my house. Simultaneously though, leaving home exhilarated me; expanding horizons and new ventures ahead. Life as I knew it was ending with tears one moment, smiles the next.

As Moehringer wrote, “Youth doesn’t bother to say goodbye.”

That farewell is bittersweet, with plenty of soul.

***

We should all celebrate Jeter because he was a good guy.

This is one facet of Moehringer’s argument.

He points out that Jeter was never involved in any of the sordid transgressions his teammates were.

Domestic abuse, check kiting, banned substances, drunken driving, assaulting a bartender, assaulting a security guard, perjury, probation violation, child sex abuse have all been connected to Jeter’s teammates in the past two decades.

I struggle to follow the logic that the absence of bad behavior should make fans like a player more.

This reminds me of another example. In high school, some kids leveraged a deal with their parents to earn rewards for good grades. An ‘A’ meant $50, and so on. When I asked for the same thing, my parents said I would never receive money for good grades, simply because good grades were a part of the expectation.

Alex Rodriguez, Jeter’s teammate for nine years, said in ESPN that Jeter’s stats were hard to achieve, “But being undefeated for 20 years? In New York City? That’s remarkable.”

It’s not his fault that we do so, but why do we celebrate Jeter just because he’s a good dude? Shouldn’t that be the expectation rather than the surprising reality?

Just as my satisfactory performance in school was expected, shouldn’t everyone be held to the expectation of being a good person?

***

Moehringer differentiates that Jeter isn’t guarded, just ‘not open’ – but to what extent?

The most telling example of Jeter’s coy nature comes from a different story: Sports Illustrated’s cover piece on Jeter, written by Tom Verducci.

When interviewing him, Verducci asked about the perception which states that if you betray Jeter’s trust once, you’ll never have his allegiance again.

Verducci mentions Chad Curtis, a teammate who publicly criticized Jeter for being friendly with the opposition. Curtis was traded four months later.

“Don’t bring it up,” Jeter said.

He continued saying that there are more to the stories than we knew, but didn’t comment further.

Jeter had the same response when Verducci tried to probe further on this issue with the popular belief that Jeter and co-star Alex Rodriguez didn’t get along in the mid-2000s.

Jeter motioned to have the recorder turned off and didn’t speak on it.

Moehringer reflects on this.

“How else do you write an appreciation of a man almost everyone already appreciates … (who) won’t tell you squat … and will somehow make you respect him for telling you squat?”

This is mind-boggling. I understand it’d be hard to write a negative feature on Derek Jeter – perhaps PR suicide – in the last few games of his career, but you could criticize his unwillingness to share anything with reporters.

***

Another thing Moehringer points out is that Jeter’s ‘Long Goodbye’ reminds us all of impending mortality, which baseball is supposed to make us forget.

This is a good point, but Jeter’s career ending on an awkward, incorrectly struck piano note after a beautiful concerto is fitting because it’s a microcosm for life. Moehringer, like the rest of us, wishes that good things would never pass. He wants to hang on Jeter because for so long he’s been reassuringly there. Understandable though it may be, Moehringer should be thrilled because Jeter’s given baseball all he can give. But sports writers are crying for themselves.

As painful as it is to see, this is what happens. Things break down and regress with age, a felicitous finale for a guy celebrated for playing clean in the steroid era.

If I have been unclear: I don’t dislike Derek Jeter. But, simultaneously, I don’t like him either. I respect – not #Re2pect – him. As a baseball fan, I recognize his contributions, admire his leadership, and appreciate his loyalty, but I do not specifically like him.

So why is mourning Derek Jeter a thing every baseball fan is being forced to do?

Tom Verducci said on NBC Sports radio, “If you don’t like Derek Jeter, you don’t like baseball.”

… Or you could just not like Derek Jeter?

Derek Jeter has achieved the same status as soccer during World Cup time in the way that soccer fans are affronted you don’t appreciate the beauty of the sport.

Moehringer displays the same attitude here, as he addresses all the critics.

“… The haters, the anti-Jeterites, haw-hawing and pooh-poohing … All this piety, they say … the legend thing, the icon thing, it’s all just a function of Jeter playing in New York. Jeter is good, they say, not great, and the Long Goodbye has been too long by half …”

But, are the critics wrong?

Particularly, they are right about the function of playing in New York.

One of Moehringer’s biggest arguments is that Jeter’s greatness derives from coupling good statistics with being a good person, and I totally agree. Great numbers, World Series titles, being a good person, and representing a franchise is a cause for celebration.

But another player that fits this description: Paul Konerko.

Why was he not even mentioned in this piece? Because he didn’t play in New York.

Shamefully, Konerko has barely been mentioned this whole season.

Plus, consider this: Yankees fans faithfully follow Jeter, who appreciates them from a distance; Konerko considers Chicago White Sox fans.

This isn’t to prove Konerko is better, but to show they’re nearly the same except for the city they play in. But who has the cover of both major sports magazines in the country on the week of October 13?

Not Paul Konerko.

Why is that? Because he plays in Chicago.

***

Derek Jeter is not a polarizing figure.

He went to work every day, kept to himself, obeyed the rules, and consistently produced great results.

You don’t have to love Jeter, but you must respect him.

The media – ESPN the Mag and Sports Illustrated in particular – told its consumers over the past eight months that they must love Jeter, a man purported to have been synonymous with baseball itself. This is where the chalk-line should be etched in dirt.

Jeter’s accomplishments are worthy of respect, but not to be forced upon every baseball fan as transcendent of the game.

Sam Fortier is a Freshman Journalism student at Syracuse University. He likes baseball, peanut butter, and Kanye West. You can follow him on Twitter here, if you’d like. He recently ran his first race – a 5K – and can’t understand why people do it. Explanatory emails are welcome at sjfortie@syr.edu

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