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Derek Jeter: Deconstructing the Myth of the Yankee Captain

Dennis Doyle@@dennisdoyleFeatured ColumnistSeptember 29, 2014

New York Yankees designated hitter Derek Jeter stands on deck for his at-bat in the first inning against the Boston Red Sox in a baseball game at Fenway Park Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, in Boston. It is the last baseball game of his career. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Editor's note: The New York Yankees are retiring Derek Jeter's No. 2 jersey at Monument Park on Sunday, per Chris Bahr of Fox Sports. This article was originally published on Bleacher Report in 2014 but is being redistributed to remember his legacy as part of our coverage of his jersey retirement.

                                     

There is fact, and there is legend. There is Derek Jeter the ballplayer, and there is Derek Jeter the myth. And the myth—reflected in the outpouring of adulation and parade of retirement gifts normally reserved for the titans of the game—has outgrown the man.

How did this happen? How did Derek Jeter, who never even won an American League MVP award, become this generation's Joe DiMaggio?

There's no denying Madison Avenue's role. The ubiquitous Nike RE2PECT ads, the schmaltzy black-and-white Gatorade commercials featuring an everyman Jeter glad-handing his way through the South Bronx as Frank Sinatra belts out "My Way" in the background and the Yankees' embarrassing huckstering of Jeter mementos that stretch the definition of "memorabilia" create a feedback loop that perpetuates the Jeter myth.

Advertisers are clever, but they do not create a myth. They merely capture it, embellish it and repackage it for public consumption. The fountainhead of the myth draws from two wells: objective reality, in this case the measure of a ballplayer’s ability, and circumstantial reality, or the external factors outside a player's control—luck, in other words.

Under the objective lens, Jeter acquits himself well. He was one of the best offensive shortstops of all time, played with unsurpassed commitment to winning and belongs in the Hall of Fame. Even the most strident Yankee-haters can't deny that.

But Jeter was also lucky. That isn't to say he made his living on infield hits (although he did cap his career with one), bloop singles or home runs reeled in over the outfield fence by 12-year-old fans. All athletes benefit from the rub of the green from time to time.

Instead, Jeter's luck primarily fell outside the lines—how many ballplayers get to play for the most successful and iconic team in the history of North American sports alongside so many greats, including the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera?

Good fortune—with an assist from Madison Avenue—inflated Jeter's myth beyond the perimeter of his skill set. Does anyone believe we would have watched a season-long retirement tour if Jeter had spent his career wasting away in Kansas City?

Understandably, the disconnect between Jeter the myth and Jeter the ballplayer has led to blowback. Hence the Keith Olbermann rant and the chorus of "overrated" chants that trailed Jeter throughout his career.

On some level, Olbermann is right: Jeter's outsized myth offends the sport's weightier demigods—Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle—and waters down the disenfranchised greats who, unlike Jeter, never had a chance to shine.

What about those guys? What about Don Mattingly? Are they not worthy of the same praise Jeter received simply because they weren’t as charmed with great teammates to propel them to almost a regular season’s worth of postseason appearances? Is Jeter the only one with championship "je ne sais quoi"?

Of course he's not. But the question misses the point. Sports are myth enacted by extraordinary humans. Why should it matter, in the end, whether greatness was attained through factors outside of the hero’s control?

Take Jeter's final game at Yankee Stadium, a microcosm of his career. Does it matter that his last at-bat at Yankee Stadium would never have happened if David Robertson, one of the best closers in the game, didn’t blow a three-run lead in the bottom of the ninth? Or if Jose Pirela didn’t lead off with a single so Brett Gardner could bunt a pinch runner into scoring position, perfectly setting the scene for one last act of Jeter magic?

Serendipity and mythology have always gone hand in hand. The Greeks even gave luck its own goddess, Tyche. She touched Derek Jeter, and he made the most of his supernatural powers. To detract from the myth of Jeter is to deny the power of luck in sports, myth and life.

Shakespeare put it best: "Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them." For Derek Jeter, it was all three.

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