I’m not here without Derek Jeter.
When he debuted, when he became a household name in the New York metro area, I was a young kid. Sure, I’d already played baseball and both my father and grandfather were huge fans and I would’ve likely loved the sport anyway, but the timing of Jeter’s rise was perfect for a young kid becoming a real fan. While Bernie Williams, not Jeter, eventually became my favorite player, Jeter’s place in my budding fandom–and that of many my age–cannot be understated.
The remarkable thing about Jeter’s career–at least until its latter stages–was how it was–cliche as it sounds–so damn consistent. He wasn’t a below average player until his age 36 season in 2010; he even managed to bounce back in 2011 and 2012 before bottoming out in 2013 and 2014. A contrast to this consistency was the way I (we?) felt about Jeter as the years went along.
Predictably, when I was a kid, I thought Jeter was everything the media portrayed him to be. Infallible. A leader. The best the game had to offer. As the years went on, I–predictably again–became more jaded about Jeter. He was overrated. The constant fawning was annoying. Recently, with more maturity and less saber-driven faux edginess, I’ve settled on the idea that Derek Jeter is baseball’s own Rorschach Test. In him, you will see what you want to see, how you want to see it, and you’ll find any way to justify it.
If you want to see the clean-cut-all-American-pedestal-standing-jump-throwing-all-that’s-right-with-the-game-proverbial-golden-calf, you most certainly can.
If you want to see the jerky-arrogant-wouldn’t-move-off-his-position-to-accommodate-a-better-player-no-range-having-cliche-spouting-machine, you most certainly can.
At times, I’ve seen both of those things. But now, I see things differently. Derek Jeter got so overrated for intangible things that his tangible things became underrated and underappreciated. Shortstops are certainly more offensive-minded than they were when Jeter was coming up, but let’s see if any of them can remain solidly above average for 20 years. His shaky defense can’t be ignored and neither can the media fawning. But those two things don’t negate just how great he was for so long and just how lucky we were to watch it.
So little of our conversations around baseball have even the slightest bit of nuance. For a long time, that included the subject of Derek Jeter. To be intellectually honest as baseball fans and thinkers, we need to be nuanced about Jeter. Was he the best baseball thing since sunflower seeds? Hell no. Was he the worst baseball thing since the sac bunt? Hell no. Derek Jeter was a great player for a long time who’ll soon be elected to and inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. For his playing career, just what he did on the field, he deserves that honor.