For the Love of the Game

Last Wednesday night, I mentioned to someone that I hadn’t really cried in years. On Thursday night, I came dangerously close. As I watched Derek Jeter punch the first pitch he saw from Baltimore’s Evan Meek into right field, I thought that if ever there were a time to disregard my thoroughly internalized, tear-less masculinity, it was this exact moment. Every aspect of it was peak Jeter: a first pitch swinging, perfect inside-out stroke, opposite field walk-off RBI single. Add a Bob Shepherd announcement at the beginning, and a Joe Torre hug at the end, and we are no longer merely watching a baseball game: this was the ideal, essential, Platonic form of “Jeter” at its height.

There’s been a lot of discussion about whether Jeter is the best shortstop ever, merely outstanding or possibly even overrated. I am not the guy to weigh in on this discussion. And, to be honest, I don’t particularly care, because I think that discussion misses the broader point: The fanfare over Derek Jeter’s retirement has less to do with what he’s done on the field than what he represents. Jeter isn’t just a great shortstop and a first-ballot Hall of Famer (though he is those things); he’s the Captain, and more importantly for people who came of age as Yankees fans in the late '90s, he’s our Captain. I am one of those people. I moved to Northern New Jersey in the fall of 2000, just as the Yankees were wrapping up the American League pennant on the way to a third consecutive World Series title. I’d barely ever fallen asleep in my new house when I fell asleep stuck in post-game gridlock in the old Yankees Stadium’s parking garage.

Usually, I preface my articles with some caveat about how I can write only from my own perspective; I cannot do that here. Here I can only write, or attempt to write, as my 7-year old self, as the kid who practiced the jump-throw for hours, even though it was thoroughly impractical for a lefty who was only allowed to play first base.

I can only write as the kid who fell asleep every night to John Sterling’s radio call and memorized arcane baseball trivia to the constant annoyance of everybody around me. I’m not sure if there’s any of that kid left in my present self, a 21-year old senior at Boston College who didn’t know the Yankees had been eliminated from playoff contention until after watching the Jeter clip. Nevertheless, to the extent that there is some ineffable sense in which those formative experiences continue to inform and shape me, it is from that almost-inaccessible place that I attempt to draw my reflections here.

To me, Derek Jeter embodies the most romantic notions baseball fans cling to about the game, and thereby validates our refusal to cede to rising cynicism. Not because he’s “Mr. November”, or because he has over 3,000 hits, but because he represents a different kind of professional athlete. In an era where the money has clearly superseded any comparatively “pure” motive as the dominant force in professional sports, Jeter gave the impression that he sprinted onto the infield every day because there was nothing in the world he’d rather be doing. Money aside, Jeter is one of the last guys I can take seriously when he talks about loving baseball. And beyond talking about it, he demonstrated his love of the game by working at it. In the steroid era, we are rightly skeptical about successful ballplayers; Jeter belies the notion that a good guy can’t succeed in the big leagues.

It also seems beyond dispute to me that Derek Jeter is the paradigmatic Yankee of our time. I feel comfortable talking about Jeter in the same breath as Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, DiMaggio, etc, because of his commitment to excellence as a Yankee. Some athletes are open about their willingness to be bought across boundaries of fan loyalty, but one gets the sense that Jeter understands himself as a Yankee prior to a baseball player. Certainly before he understands himself as an economic commodity, whose value is to be maximized. Some day soon, Jeter’s name will be written in both Cooperstown and Monument Park; one wonders which will mean more to him.

Photo courtesy of Flickr

Photo courtesy of Flickr

There is a way in which Derek Jeter symbolically approximates what we think of as the American Dream: he works hard and earns his success, but remains modest. He is passionate in his loyalty to a community, but retains his individuality. Perhaps in his enactment of a particular narrative, Jeter has given us hope that faith in the continued validity of this Dream is tenable. Professional baseball after steroids is cynically corrupted, but Derek Jeter bespeaks the possibility of overcoming cynicism through a hope for purity. Jeter’s symbolic power is derived from his purity: Pure effort, pure team, pure baseball.

After the retirement of Derek Jeter, are we not also forced to retire this naïve optimism? Because at the end of the day, that quasi-religious hope against hope in pure righteousness lies at the core of the American Dream, that idyllic conviction that doing good leads to good things and good people should succeed. This notion is revealed to be absurd at the back end of a college career in this declining American empire, but for a kid fighting sleep to hear John Sterling’s famous shout, throwing a tennis ball sidearm against my garage door to practice fielding grounders, Derek Jeter represented an incontrovertible reason to believe.

It goes without saying that I was duped; there never was a pure Jeter, and there never will be. PR staffers and marketers carefully crafted his deification for the express purpose of convincing upper-middle class children that we were buying more than tickets and jerseys. We weren’t. Lots of people got very rich off of this selfless, hard-working gentleman, not the least of which was Derek Jeter himself. Purity might be a valuable virtue, but it turns out it’s even more valuable as a commodity. But none of that mattered to me last Thursday night. Last Thursday night, I was the kid who knew how many errors Jeter made in his worst year in the minors (56). Last Thursday night, I was the kid who always sprinted on and off the field after hearing Jeter learned that from Don Mattingly.

There will be many conversations about statistics and achievements in the coming years, but these discussions will inevitably fail to capture the importance of Derek Jeter. Jeter symbolized a time when romanticism made sense, a moment in baseball history that can never be replicated or approximated. It was not Jeter-the-man, but Jeter-the-symbol that so captivated me as a kid and nearly brought me to tears last week. Jeter modeled, or appeared to model, the transcendence of petty cynicism by playing out of true and deep love of the game, and for that, the part of me that is still an idealistic Little Leaguer will always remain grateful.

Farewell, Captain; you will be missed.

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