Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Deification of Derek Jeter

The amount of hype preceding  every  All-Star Game is heavy, but  this year the hype was  horrendous. It was horrendous because it was accompanied by the  idolization of Derek Jeter, who is retiring at the end of the current season.  Not even the Great Bambino, the Sultan of Swat,  Babe Ruth, was idolized anywhere near the degree that Jeter has been.  The  idolization of Jeter spills over to deification. For some Americans,  he’s  Derek Jesus. He did not hit with the power of Ruth and dozens of other legendary sluggers. He did not play shortstop with the range and skill of a dozen others who have played that position. He did not run the bases with the speed of the fastest. He was good, very good, but what he was great at was being good for so long. For example,  he was a good base stealer for  so long that he holds the record for most steals in Yankee history. There were lots of Yankees who were faster than he was, but nobody ran longer. Except for an off-, injury-plagued year in his mid-thirties, he was always at the top of his game. It was his longevity that enabled him to compile the very impressive statistics that he has. Lou Gherig was known as the Iron Horse because of  his durability. Gehrig  played a record seventeen seasons for the Yankees, but Jeter broke that record and at  the end of the 2014 season will have played for twenty years, three years longer than Gehrig.

Jeter began playing for the Yankees in 1995, about when chemical cheating began. It was as prevalent as it was because it was profitable. Baseball was slipping into the doldrums in the latter part of the twentieth century. It needed a jolt and  steroids juiced it up. It became much more profitable for the players, especially for the juiced stars, but also for the complicit team owners. Then the pervasiveness of the chemical cheating was revealed in news reports and in tell-all books like Jose Canseco’s Juiced (2005), the subtitle of which was Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big. Baseball defended itself by transforming  baseball’s Mr. Clean, Derek Jeter, from the Anti A-Rod into the Shining Knight of Abstinence in baseball’s scandalous, dark night of steroids. His final transformation  was from the Shining Knight to The Captain, making him the god of  baseball. Jeter has been the well-paid poster boy for the most monopolistic team in American sports, a team located in the financial capital of America, where the dress code once called for pinstripes. George Steinbrenner was a stereotypical unscrupulous capitalist, but Jeter's deification has helped rehabilitate The Boss's reputation. The reason for Jeter’s deification was  not just his longevity but also his reputed integrity.  He has put up very impressive numbers in his long career without apparently committing the cardinal sin of modern baseball, without using  performance enhancing drugs (PED’s). He apparently achieved greatness without the chemical cheating that was so prevalent in major league baseball in the last quarter century.

Almost everyone involved in and connected to baseball has helped glorify Jeter—the fans, the complicit owners, the obliging commissioners; the adulatory New York sportswriters; and even the professional arbiters of the sport, the umpires. As reported recently in the New York Times (7 July 2014),  a statistical  study revealed that umpires, in calling of balls and strikes in regular games, favor pitchers  who have been selected for All-Star Games over those who have not by a margin of 17 percent. Based on my observation of the electronic balls and strikes tracking  available to me as a subscriber to MLB.TV, I suspect a study would show umpires in the calling of balls and strikes similarly favor All-Star hitters.  And at no time would umpires be more inclined to favor the All-Star Jeter than in his farewell year and in his final All Star Game. But umpires were  not the only ones on the field at the All-Star Game who favored him. The National League starting All-Star pitcher Adam Wainwright revealed how much even an opposing player  could get  caught up in the delirium of deifying Jeter.  After returning to the dugout, the somewhat giddy Wainwright  admitted to reporters that he had deliberately grooved a pitch to Jeter in the first inning of the All-Star Game. Wainwright  wanted   “The Captain” to live up to the very high expectations baseball fans have for him.  Wainwright subsequently tried to downplay if not retract his admission, but truth will out.  To vary the  famous Latin quotation in vino veritas (in wine there is truth), I would say in delirare veritas  (in delirium  there is truth), as the Oracle at Delphi was believed to have demonstrated.


Jeter is not only the anti-A-Rod, he is, at a subliminal level of  our national psyche, the anti-Obama. This does not mean Jeter is anti-Obama or even a  Republican.  As  close to his black father as he appears to be, Jeter is not anti-Obama. On the contrary, he admitted voting for Obama in 2012. Typical of remarks online to this revelation of Jeter’s vote for Obama were the following three comments on Free Republic, a conservative chat room: (1)“Normally a guy who plays it close to the vest and shuns controversy like the plague, Jeter blasts out his presidential choice. This Yankee fan feels confused, as a hero becomes just another dumb athlete.” (2) “A great baseball player, an economic moron. Life goes on.” (3) “Derek Jeter proves he’s on dope.” But contrary to the claim that Jeter “blasted out” his presidential choice, Jeter usually plays it close to the vest when it comes to politics and does avoid controversy like the plague.  He’s no dope. He knows it would be bad for his lucrative endorsement business and Jeter clothing line to offend either conservatives or liberals.

In the minds of many conservative white baseball fans Jeter  apparently represents the triumph of American values and the realization of  the American Dream. With no more than a high school education, Jeter mastered his physical craft and became, if not  one of the one percent,   at least extremely wealthy, with a large ocean-front mansion in Florida. In a poll conducted by Fortune Magazine of who the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders were,  Jeter came  in at Number 11. President Obama didn’t crack the top 50. Jeter is  not, like Obama,  a liberal Harvard law school graduate and former community organizer whom  many conservatives feel is, as president, leading the country down the road to socialized medicine, same sex marriage,  and Islam. If Jeter looked more like his black father maybe  there would be less idolization of him, and perhaps if Obama looked more like his white mother there might be less fear and hatred of him. But as it stands, the bi-racial Jeter and the bi-racial Obama occupy important if antithetical niches in the American imagination,  the one being deified, the other demonized. A central figure in the BALCO steroid scandal, Victor Conte, said there was no way in the world Jeter could have become the  ageless athlete he did without PED’s. The same has been said of David Ortiz the Red Sox slugger whose lackluster, injury-plagued career took off only after he was released by the Twins after no team was interested in trading  for him. After his release, he was signed  by the Red Sox. That may have been  when he began taking a PED, which not only improves a player's performance on the field but speeds up his recovery from injuries and slows down the process of aging off the field  Ortiz is widely believed to have been among those players who tested positive for PEDs in a test in which players were guaranteed anonymity. Was Jeter one of those who tested positive? It seems very unlikely but who knows for sure?

Jeter has been accused not only using PED’s but also of being gay or at least a switch hitter. He was featured in a cover story, “Jeter’s Swinging Years,”  in GQ (April 2011), a magazine that has been suspected from its inception of catering to gay readers. The photos of him in that issue are not only humorous but in light of its reputation, suggestive.

Jeter in GQ. Size does matter.

Good sport that he is, Jeter also appeared in drag as a player’s wife in a sketch when he hosted Saturday Night Live in 2001. 

Did Jeter discuss drag bunting on Saturday Night Live?

If it should turn out that Jeter is one of those who used some form of PED to achieve his longevity as a baseball player, and if it should turn out that he is not quite as heterosexual as all his gorgeous scantily clad white girlfriends would suggest, and if it is publicized that he voted for that devil Obama for president, his deification might grind to a halt. It might, in other words, be a whole new ballgame.

(For an earlier post on the subject of Viagra and baseball click here.)