Derek Jeter: The Baseball Rorschach Test

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.

Yeah, Jeets.

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8 Comments

  1. vicki

    his hof case is unimpeachable. but even an appeal to nuance here is bowdlerized. he didn’t merely refuse to move off of short; he was an entire bitch to a new (truly great) teammate, and led fans on a scorn campaign that lasted rodriguez’s entire yankee tenure. the rank-pulling to remain in the 2-hole when it was actively hurting the club was also distasteful.

    but the last straw for me was the bs farewell tour. it was gross. put him in the hall, where he belongs. just spare me all the What Jeter Means To Baseball discourse. we got enough of that five years ago to last many lifetimes.

    • RetroRob

      Nice to see you drop by vicki. : -) Hope all’s well.

      • vicki

        back atcha! seeing your name (& eddard’s) has me all nostalgic.

  2. I suspect enough HOF voters (i.e., one or two) will see the “overrated” Rorschach to deny a unanimous selection.

  3. DAve from MoTown, NJ

    Jeter holds a special place in my heart…

    My two daughters were casual yankee fans. Didn’t really care, but since dad was a die hard fan, they gave it some lip service. Daughter number two shares Jeter’s 6/26 b’day, so her connection to the Yankees was also about him.

    She was in her teens for Jeter’s last year. And while she knew the phrase “you root for the laundry” she was devastated because her only connection to the Yankees was that shared birthday and Jeter would be gone.

    That final season, she became a bit obsessed. She wanted to go to games to see him in person, and that last home game she jumped in my arms when he hit the walk off single.

    Since then she wanted to really learn about baseball and the Yankees. She is now a true, die hard fan. We buy each other tickets for our birthdays. We went to game one of the Twins series for her first playoff game. We screamed from the couch together when DJ hit the 9th inning homer and shared the lowest low a short time later

    And now I have someone to share this painful, wonderful obsession called being a Yankee fan. All because Jeter was the face of the Yankees and happened to be born on 6/26.

    Loved the article Matt, because when I look at the Jeter Rorschach, I just see my daughter, and that is as special as it gets.

    • DJ Lemeddardhieu

      Thanks for sharing, DAve. I wept reading your post because it reminds me of the relationship I have with my dad. We’ve been so blessed to have these special ballplayers over the generations who make us want to be fans. For me and your daughter it was Jeter. For my Dad it was Mickey. This generation it’s probably Judge. Now if the FO would just let us win a ring we’d all have something to enjoy together.

  4. RetroRob

    There is absolutely nothing controversial or negative regarding Derek Jeter and his HOF credentials. He’s a first-ballot HOFer. He should be a unanimous HOFer since he’s an obvious HOFer. He’s an iconic player with a career filled with iconic moments. He was the captain of a dynasty. The only dust ups that occur around Jeter are from non-Yankee fans — chiefly Red Sox and Mets fans — who have spent their baseball lives obsessing over Jeter. He beat them at every turn.

  5. DJ Lemeddardhieu

    Was he the best thing in baseball since the sac bunt, Matt? Damn right he was and Jete was a big believer in the sac bunt. We watched him his entire career. He was the greatest to ever play and the reason why baseball recovered after the ’94 strike and the steroids scandals. I think he’s a unanimous first ballot HOFer just like Mariano. If you were sculpting a Mount Rushmore of baseball his beautiful face would be up there along with Mo, Ruth and Gehrig.

    And as I said yesterday, I get a kick out of people criticizing his defense. It’s like saying Ruth ate too many hot dogs or Mariano only threw one pitch. It’s silly and there’s no merit to it. He only won 5 gold gloves and they don’t hand those out to just anyone. And as someone pointed out yesterday, he would have been greatly helped by shifts and advanced metrics telling him where to stand. Instead, he had to range over to his right, field the ball and throw it jumping away from 1st base and got the out every single time. He didn’t have a computer telling him exactly where the ball would be hit.

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