Derek Jeter: It's Time To Say Goodbye to a Man We Barely Know

Robert LipsyteGuest ColumnistJuly 18, 2011

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 09:  Derek Jeter #2 of the New York Yankees looks on against the Tampa Bay Rays at Yankee Stadium on July 9, 2011 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Michael Heiman/Getty Images)
Michael Heiman/Getty Images

Shoot me. I’m starting to feel sorry for Derek Jeter.

There’s almost always a feeling of letdown after a record is broken. After all, it was the chase that was so exciting, the anticipation. Would it actually happen? How would it happen?

That Jeter would slog to 3,000 seemed fated, but who could imagine the storybook way he accomplished the feat—a 5-for-5 day at the plate, including the winning hit and a splendid home run for history?

Yet, the letdown has a sour taste to it and I think it has at least as much to do with his fans as with him. For all the years of Jeter worship, of godding up The Captain as the moral center of the team and the backbone of this generation of a championship dynasty—even as the face of clean baseball—there has always been something remote and hollow about the man, and thus something false about his idolatry.

Face it, fans and even baseball writers don’t have a clue as to who he is; he’s never let them in. Not that he has to, mind you. Just that if he doesn’t, who cares beyond performance?

In the days after the record, Jeter ditched the All-Star Game to some criticism. Commentators dissed the fan who caught the homer and gave it to Jeter.

And there are annoying radio commercials asking us to “celebrate” the event by buying baseballs with “authenticated” Jeter signatures. I assume he made those marks well before he made the Big One.

Now before you start throwing old columns in my face—the April 11 one where I jestingly suggested that Jeter take steroids if he really cared about his fans or the not-so-jesting July 7 one where I suggested he should quit as soon as he gets ahead—let me ask you to try to hold two seemingly conflicting ideas.

One, Jeter is a Hall of Fame player who should be remembered and honored, and two, Jeter is an over-the-hill player who should be platooned or benched so the Yankees can start rebuilding their club.

Why is this so hard? Is it because you are so invested in the Jeter you want Jeter to be?

Jeter who? Jeter is a master at deflecting questions. He never gets trapped in revealing discussions. What we know about him is about what we know about most movie stars who are surrounded by PR flacks—he dates hotties (at 37 should he be married with kids? Just asking), he is building an ostentatious mansion and he has a foundation (I’m not cynical enough to suggest it’s good for image and tax issues).

My takeaway: He’s not special, or at least he hasn’t shown it yet. (The Flip was special, although not quite as special as landing a plane in the Hudson River.)

I recently suggested that Jeter could be an alien or a cyborg. Friends think I’m off base. They think he is a kind of idiot savant, a rain man, a genius at what he does with minimal social skills.

If it was just me crabbing, I’d shut up. But the commentary in the days after the record, even on this holy site, was not entirely positive.

Why did he ditch the All-Star Game, especially when it was an unearned gift from fans and his peers? He certainly isn't having an All-Star season. A little ungracious. Hardly worthy of St. Jeter. 

But then again, he spent the break with Minka Kelly in Miami, where she was shooting Charlie’s Angels. (I say, if they need new Charlie’s Angels, with Jaclyn Smith and Kate Jackson still alive, then the Yankees need a younger shortstop.)

More tellingly was the criticism of Christian Lopez, the fan who caught the home run ball and gave it to Jeter. I thought that was a class act, the mark of a true fan honoring his hero. But people carped at what a fool he was.

It might be worth several hundred thousand dollars, they said, a good leg up for a new college grad with a fiancée. And what if he had to pay taxes on the gifts that the Yankees quite nicely and properly showered on him? Wouldn’t he be a jerk then? (Much was resolved when a sporting goods store stepped up with $50,000. Should that gesture have come from you-know-who?)

I think such a reaction was less about Lopez or even what the critics would have done in his place than the feeling that Jeter was just not worth such a sacrifice.

Think about the last truly great homegrown Yankees star, Mickey Mantle. Men used to cry when they met him. Do you think anyone would have begrudged the Mick his souvenirs? And Mantle was no moral role model; he was just a very human guy.

And maybe that’s it. Jeter is nicer than Mantle (I can attest to that), has done far more good works and no harm that we know of. But he isn’t quite human. He is all performance. Which means it’s hard to be sentimental about him, to revel in his individual glories.

As soon as he can’t do it anymore, he is over. As it should be. There was no soul in The Flip.

Robert Lipsyte’s most recent book is An Accidental Sportswriter: A Memoir.