Appreciating Derek Jeter

It’s not an easy time to be a legend.

I feel redundant saying this, since it’s become a common refrain among sportswriters when discussing star players, but we live in skeptical times. It’s too easy to blame it on the steroids scandal from the late 1990s and early 2000s.  The problem is more deeply rooted than that. Simply put, we live in an age of technology and information – and in such an age, it becomes more difficult to believe in something as abstract as a hero.

We live in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, where small stories become huge scandals. It’s an age where computers and social networks have come to dominate our lives. An age where stats determine whether we keep our jobs, and where a  computer algorithm promises us we can find true love. We have free and easy access to more news than our great-grandparents could have dreamed about, yet we can’t help but crave more information. We’ve truly reached the Information Age.

Yet in this age of instant information, can legends survive? It used to be that legends would grow from hearsay, from people passing around stories by word of mouth. Still, no story can survive for long in these days without being dissected, torn to shreds and stitched back together. If Babe Ruth’s Called Shot happened today, would baseball fans 80 years from now still remember it? Almost certainly not – there would be hundreds of reporters covering the story, searching for quotes and digging up new information and angles. The very mythology of the story would be sucked dry. Heroes and legends often don’t stand up to close scrutiny – they thrive best on uncertainty and myth and the power of a child’s imagination.

We’ve come to know this all too well, as icon after icon has had their names thrown in the mud in recent years. Tiger Woods. Roger Clemens. Lance Armstrong. Michael Vick. Brett Favre. LeBron James. There are few star athletes these days who don’t have negative comments surrounding them, and it feels at times as though fans love to dislike stars. It’s almost as though we’re jealous: “No, you can’t possibly be that successful. I need to see you fail.”

And so, I understand why there’s been so much negativity tossed at Derek Jeter as he’s approached 3,000 hits. That’s simply how things go these days. Jeter’s among the biggest sports celebrities of the past 15 years, and it’s become cool to hate him. Heck, I used to laugh at the snarky things written about him over at Fire Joe Morgan back when there was such a divide about his defense.

It’s become natural to react with snark and sarcasm when people write about a sports figure in an overwrought, idealized way. And Derek Jeter has spurred more hyperbolic writing than any other athlete in the modern era: He’s a living legend. A winner. The Captain. The possessor of unquantifiable intangibles. He makes a team better by his mere presence.

And every saberist will say, “Yeah, right.”

But you know what? We – as a collective whole – need to re-examine our Derek Jeter hate. Yes, he’s declining on the field. Yes, his contract overpays him for his production on the field. Yes, if he were anyone else, he wouldn’t be hitting leadoff or playing shortstop. And yes, there are many people who still refer to him as a demigod. But there’s something to be said for appreciating a legend in action.

Why do we feel the need to tear Jeter down? Love him or hate him, he’s a hall-of-fame player – a first-ballot kind of guy. He’s among the youngest players to reach 3,000 hits (sixth), and the first player to reach this milestone since Craig Biggio did it in 2007. There are many great players who never reached 3,000 hits – Babe Ruth pops to mind – making it an impressive accomplishment. Jeter is putting the finishing touches on a historical career, and it would be a pity if we were too intent on tearing him down to appreciate this moment.

Growing up, what was it that made you a baseball fan? For me, it were those incredible stories and the history that made baseball, well, Baseball, with a capital “B.” I grew up a Yankees fan in the mid-90s, and the mythology grabbed me: larger-than-life players like Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, the breathtaking accomplishments like Roger Maris’s 1961 season, and the oddball characters like Mickey Rivers and Ryan Duren.

And the same was true for baseball as a whole. There wasn’t a book in the library about baseball that I didn’t read — but the more I read, the more I wanted to find out. Willie Mays and “The Catch.” The Shot Heard ‘Round The World. Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell and Oscar Charleston. Branch Rickey, Connie Mack and Bill Veeck. Baseball has created its own mythology, its own version of the Greek myths of old, and that’s what drew me – and many other young fans, I’m sure — into the game. It’s a sport filled with magical moments and players. It’s that magic reached out to me.

Of course, the magic disappears as we grow older. I found myself drawn to advanced stats since they kept feeding into my desire for more knowledge, but it’s worth reminding ourselves every now and then about those heroes — those legends. Just as I grew up reading about Mickey Mantle – my dad’s favorite players as a kid – my children will grow up reading about Jeter. Like it or not, his career fits right in with the magic of baseball – the postseason victories, the hall-of-fame career, and (of course) The Flip.

More than anything, I wish I could go back and watch Ted Williams and Satchel Paige play ball. I’d give anything to see those men in action. But remember that we have our own legends – players who generations of children will be reading about and wishing they had seen. Chief among them will be Derek Jeter.

Today was one of those magical moments; Jeter turned back the clock for the afternoon, racking up five hits and leading the Yankees like the Captain of old. So kudos Jeter – congrats for finally reaching this milestone. I, for one, am looking forward to watching the remainder of your career, no matter how long or short it may be.

We hoped you liked reading Appreciating Derek Jeter by Steve Slowinski!

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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.

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Hasan Paliwala
Hasan Paliwala

Nicely said, Steve.