Keefe To The City: Derek Jeter Documentary Gets An ‘A’

By Neil Keefe
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I thought after Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit that my “love” pieces about him would stop for a while. Well, at least more than 20 days. Then HBO had to go and make an hour documentary on his quest for 3,000 hits, and I couldn’t help myself but analyze the best thing HBO Sports has ever done. (I realize that might be a stretch.)

It’s not surprising that Jeter’s journey to 3,000 hits was made into a TV special since it seemed scripted to be fiction rather than non-fiction. The struggles, the disabled list stint, the trips to Tampa and Trenton, the return, the rainout and then the five-hit game. I wouldn’t be surprised if we find out at some point that HBO paid the Yankees to put him on the DL with a “calf strain.” If you take out his trips to Tampa and Trenton and the appearances by all of the Tampa workers and instructors, it’s basically just a documentary about re-watching a bunch of Yankees games in late June and early July. HBO needed that footage of Tampa and Trenton, and Jeter needed those trips to get back on track (.295, 2 HR, 13 RBIs, 6 2B, 1 3B, 4 SB in 19 games since returning from the DL).

I would have watched the documentary if it was an hour of Jeter sitting in his living room in silence with his telescope and poker table behind him and the Manhattan skyline in the background. I would have watched that because it’s Derek Jeter, and he’s been the Yankees and the starting shortstop for them since I was nine years old. But because it was an actual look into the life of the person that no outsider has ever really gotten a look into the life of, I obviously wasn’t going to miss it.

No one knows Derek Jeter (the real Derek Jeter) except for his family, Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), the friends eating lunch with him in his apartment in that one scene and his teammates. The media doesn’t know the real Derek Jeter and neither do the fans. This was the closest thing any outsider has ever come to understanding Derek Jeter off the field and without a pregame or postgame microphone in his face.

Sure, I could have done with a little less Michael Kay (“History with an exclamation point!”) and a little more John Sterling, and a little less Brian Cashman (even though he was only in it for about 10 seconds, which was 10 seconds too many) and some Gene Michael (who wasn’t in it at all). But HBO Sports once again made an exceptional documentary using Liev Schreiber’s voice to tell the story of the chase of 3,000 hits, and I’m certain there isn’t anything Schreiber can’t narrate that wouldn’t immediately become enjoyable. Even a Boone Logan appearance against a left-handed hitter.

The documentary was flawless. Well, almost. There was that one minor mistake in which Jeter and Swisher are talking about Price pitching in the 3,000th hit game and then the footage shows Brandon Gomes pitching to Eduardo Nunez. It’s obviously impossible for Gomes to have pitched at that point in the game and with Nunez up, Jeter would have been at the steps ready to go into the on-deck circle.

I recommend anyone that has HBO and hasn’t watched it to watch it. And if you don’t have HBO, I recommend you do an extensive Google search for a site that has it even though they probably have it illegally.

I decided to write down some thoughts I had about the documentary while watching it and here are five parts of the hour-long special that interested me the most. If you haven’t seen it yet, maybe you don’t want to read this, but it’s not like this needs a spoiler alert since we all know what happens at the end. (Hint: He gets the 3,000th hit.)

1. My favorite part of the entire documentary was Jeter’s time in Tampa just talking and hanging out with Mark Littlefield, Shawn Powell and Billy Connors. You could see that Jeter still views the people in Tampa as he did as an 18-year-old kid in the minors and that the guys in Tampa still view him as that 18-year-old kid that couldn’t hit or field and not the face of the franchise that was making $139,506 per game last year. (He’s down to $92,592 per game this year.) The guys in Tampa treat him like Derek Jeter the person and not Derek Jeter the superstar shortstop.

You’d think Jeter gets enough praise and gifts and that his birthday is … but there was Billy Connors buying him a birthday cake, so that the guys in Tampa could celebrate it together. I think the most genuine part of this close-up look at Jeter’s life in this documentary was while he was lying on the trainer’s table and he said, “Hey, Billy … thanks for the cake, man.”

2. Jeter obviously has a much better relationship with Gary Denbo than Kevin Long. (How much does Kevin Long look like Gary Valentine? Not as much as Kevin Millar does, but there’s still a resemblance.) At least what it looked like on HBO. Jeter basically breaks down what Kevin Long did to try to help (or ruin) his setup at the plate during the offseason in eliminating his slide. This always seemed odd to me since the guy with more hits than ANY OTHER Yankee ever was suddenly changing something he has done his entire life because Kevin Long thought it was a good idea. So, when Jeter started off poorly, he scrapped the change and went back to what has made him over $200 million and will make him a first ball Hall of Famer.

It’s not that I don’t like Kevin Long, but he never seems to be criticized. Does YES plan on showing Long in the dugout every time Curtis Granderson gets a hit off a lefty for the rest of Granderson’s Yankee career? Where are the shots of Long in the dugout when Nick Swisher strikes out looking with the bases loaded and chirps the umpire, or when Mark Teixeira swings over a changeup at his ankles like he did a keg stand before his at-bat? It’s hard to appreciate what a guy does when he’s only recognized for the supposed good he does and never questioned when the No. 3 hitter is hitting 40 points below his career average. (John Flaherty said the other day that Long told him that he “could care less” about Teixeira’s batting average. That’s good…) Give me more Gary Denbo!

3. Jeter really does have an Edge. Or an Explorer or whatever Ford SUV that was that he was getting into at his apartment to drive to the Stadium. I always thought the Ford commercials were a joke because I thought, “There’s no way Derek Jeter drives a Ford.” I always thought he drove a Mercedes or some luxury car.

A few seasons ago when I was leaving the old Stadium garage that used to run down the first base line with my friend Jim, the cops stopped traffic to let Jeter’s car out of the player’s parking area and he was in the car right behind us in a Mercedes. So, I just figured Jeter always drove a Mercedes and not a Ford. But he does drive a Ford. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I guess it’s just weird.

4. It was depressing to watch Jeter watch Old Timer’s Day on TV because you could see it in his face that he can sense that being a part of Old Timer’s Day isn’t that far away for him. He seemed in shock to watch Tino Martinez and Bernie Williams, who Jeter last played with in 2005 and 2006 respectively, play in the game after he had spent years watching the game from the dugout with those two. When he lets out that quiet “Damnnn” when he sees Bernie and Tino in the game, you know it’s really making him think about how much longer he is going to play for.

With Jeter, he never alludes to the idea that he cares about stats or his personal place in history and that he only cares about winning and the team is doing. Seeing Bernie and Tino at Old Timer’s Day seemed to be a wake-up call and the first time you could see that Jeter realizes that playing for the Yankees isn’t forever. And it was another devastating blow to me that this won’t last forever either.

5. The documentary shows a clip of Jeter’s speech that helped close out Yankee Stadium at the end of the 2008 season, and includes it as one the memorable moments in his career, like most people do. I think I’m in the minority when I say I don’t.

I’m not that big a fan of the speech. I’m not talking about the actual speech because I think he did an outstanding job with it considering it was improvised. I’m talking about the situation in that the old Stadium had to be closed out in essentially an exhibition game with nothing at stake and that a postseason game wasn’t the last thing on the other side of River Ave. I know I have been spoiled as a Yankees fan and that making the postseason isn’t something I should expect every season, but I do. It’s just hard to watch that speech and not think about what a terrible summer and season that was with some of the faces behind Jeter instead of thinking of all the history before that final game. Absurd? Maybe. Selfish? Probably. But I don’t care. That’s just how I view it.

P.S. I still can’t believe Jeter said, “sh-t.”

Follow Neil on Twitter at http://twitter.com/NeilKeefe

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