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Keidel: 20 Years Later, We Still Don’t Know Who Derek Jeter Is

Yankees Legend Proves Again To Be Master At Keeping Outside World At Arm's Length
Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees speaks at a media availability on Feb. 19, 2014, at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees speaks at a media availability on Feb. 19, 2014, at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

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By Jason Keidel
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What does it take to win in New York?

New Yorkers have the right to ask. Burn the back of the baseball cards before you enter, as your stats west of the Hudson are rarely precursors once you bite the Big Apple, a town that too often makes mice of men.

When we answer the question, we emerge with less of a physical portrait than a character profile. After scrambling for adjectives we simply point to the Bronx and say, “Just look at Jeter.”

We can’t say exactly why Derek Jeter made it seem so easy. We only know that he did. Perhaps it’s because he played every game with the grace of a legend but the grit of a Little Leaguer. No matter how many million-dollar checks he cashed, he still felt a debt to the team and the fans.

That was his public visage, which somehow remained wholesome after 20 years, 10 of which squeezed through the thorny portal of social media. In the age of violent, vitriolic discourse splashed across the buffet of message boards, Jeter never incurred the verbal wrath of Twitter trolls, never bedded or wedded the wrong gal, provided no Page Six fodder in the largest media market on earth. Frankly, Jeter is impossibly pristine.

Perhaps no player was meant to play for a team and a town more than Jeter was molded to make the Yankees. He has the Madison Avenue looks, athletic contours, understated mien, and athletic splendor to maintain the Yankee mythology.

We can muse over his high deeds under brown leaves, an eternal loop of clutch hits and surreal tosses to his catcher, but picking one above all is impossible. Jeter’s singular moments are so plural as to be almost comical. An essential trait for immortality is an annex of big-game eminence, which Jeter had in surplus.

In terms of his public countenance, Jeter is a direct descendant of the old-school star who let his peers and the newspapers spread his gospel. He has the humble, head-down ethos of the radio days, the hard-hat ethos of the ’70s, and the PR alacrity of the ’90s.

And there’s no better emblem of his flawless timing than his choice to play his final season sans Alex Rodriguez, his teammate/tormentor for the last decade.

A-Rod was brought to the Bronx to fill out Jeter’s fingers with World Series rings. Instead, well, you know what happened. Now, it’s as if the baseball gods took a giant eraser to third base, clearing the clouds over the infield so that Jeter can shine in his final gallop around the bases.

It got a little testy at the end, as it always does, with Brian Cashman challenging Jeter to find a more lucrative deal elsewhere. There was no market for middle-aged shortstops, and Jeter signed a final, $51 million contract, and somehow lived up to it with a glittering 2012 season, batting .316 with a league-leading 216 hits.

He enters this season with 3,316 hits and a lifetime .312 batting average. But ESPN may have just flashed the most impressive stat about the Yankees’ vanguard of victory. Jeter has played in 2,602 games, and only in ONE game were the Yankees mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.

But all stars and All-Stars die. Usually, the star is the last to know. He limps through his golden years with ugly defiance, bitter that his salad days have disappeared in the rear-view mirror. It seemed Jeter was destined for the same, inelegant exit from the game. But like so many moves on the diamond, his instincts were flawless. He said he has more than one year of baseball left in him. But if that were true he would not retire, particularly someone of his competitive vigor.

Turns out Mother Nature and Father Time are a still the preeminent double-play combination.

FLOCK: ‘JETER’ IS LATIN FOR ‘JESUS’

There is a frothing faction of Jeter devotees who won’t accept anything but absolute deification of their beloved legend. They actually think he’s the brightest star in an overcrowded galaxy of Yankee luminaries; he nestles nicely between Ruth and Gehrig, miles ahead of Mantle. To his most jaded congregation, “Jeter” is Latin for “Jesus.”

Anything that even distantly questions his actions is seen and attacked as blasphemous. But forgive those of us who love the Yankees yet don’t view the world through pinstriped goggles, swathed in a Jeter Snuggie. Yes, even St. Derek is subject to the same emotional metrics as other players.

Some of us like our heroes flawed. And Jeter surely was, even if his list of neuroses could fit on one page, if not one paragraph. He just chose not to share himself with us. Jeter felt that his entire obligation to you, the fan, was on the field, and thus he kept his pact with the world very corporate.

Sure, you’ll hear a story from a 20-year-old who got a ball signed by Jeter when he was 10. You’ll hear another tale of largesse and charity and such. But almost every big-time athlete signs a check or does a grip-and-grin for the less fortunate. So forgive us if we don’t believe that Jeter is retiring to expand his charitable foundation, as he implied today. He can surely do that and play pro ball simultaneously.

After two decades of diamond dominance, we have no idea who Derek Jeter really is. He’s been so painfully meticulous on and off the infield, his mannerisms so manicured, he often came across as a living baseball card.

And that’s what’s so puzzling about Jeter. Is he supremely consistent or a startling contradiction? After two decades we don’t know if he’s new school, old school or cold school. Is Jeter a throwback in the DiMaggio mold, who kept his life tucked in his breast pocket? Or was he a supreme narcissist who thought he need not spend a round on Oprah’s couch?

Is he the quiet captain who led entirely by example on the diamond or the one who didn’t attend Bob Sheppard’s funeral? Was he the guy who patted you on the butt when you bombed on the field or the guy who left those distasteful, “first time” gift baskets to the same woman twice, unaware that he already slept with her?

If it feels like we’re looking for flaws, we can go only on what he gives us, which is nothing. In the absence of a public, spiritual pulse, we are left with whispers and rumors. He’s had 20 years to tell us about himself and has refused, even when it’s entirely appropriate right now to do exactly that.

In the age of omnipotent media and more potent and venomous fans who use the social media trident to spear anyone from any distance, Jeter has chosen to be the most reserved icon of this era, eschewing Twitter twaddle and all manner of online gangsters, choosing to “Keep it real.” Yet during the most intimate moment of his career, announcing his retirement, he used Facebook, choosing to scribble on the sterile walls of social media rather than engage the public in a campfire chat from the dais.

I listened to every vowel of his press conference on Wednesday morning, during which he belched the same bromides about his team/win-first philosophy. Jon Heyman straight-up asked why even today he showed no emotion and he could only say he wasn’t “emotionally stunted,” whatever that means, and that he hid his emotions for a reason, though he never clearly stated that reason.

One can only assume that Jeter equated emotions with weakness, that any glimpse into his bejeweled life was a profound breech of his top-secret sensibilities. Surely there is logic to being so guarded, as we, the public and the media, love to inflate the most benign gestures into acts of war. But surely deep in his soul has to be a desire to open up, at least one time before he retires. Right?

It feels like Jeter was born bearing World Series rings, that he was bequeathed the behemoth from Gene Michael and Bob Watson, who masterfully crafted the “Core Four” plus Bernie, Tino, Paul, Cone, etc. But even during the dazzling romp through his first five years in the majors, Jeter had to have some nerves, some insecurity, or some pain. Right?

Jeter’s pathological contempt for confession makes him strictly an athletic endeavor, which is fine for kids who grew up on him. When any of us were children we only reveled in results, not the grind that got them to the top. Those of us who developed a more metaphysical side like to see the struggle, the journey, the saga, the pain and the gain.

But even in repose, Jeter has no interest in lifting the curtain on his soul. None of that casts a shadow on his career in a strictly statistical sense, nor on his gold-plated path to Cooperstown. His bronze bust in Monument Park is assured, soon to join his single-digit predecessors whose numbers are retired. Some of us just want to know if there’s more than one dimension to Jeter. And, for reasons he refuses to reveal, he doesn’t want us to know.

Gehrig literally died a Yankee. Ruth had his epic appetites, as did Mantle. My hero, Muhammad Ali, was more flawed than many are comfortable to admit. Michael Jordan got hustled on the golf course, and bled millions in casinos. Brett Favre’s, football’s Huck Finn, had colossal personal struggles. Heck, Reggie Jackson was in hot water before his first swing in a Yankees uniform, with some dubious remarks about the sainted Thurman Munson. Yet Jackson was beloved a year later, while millions of preteen New Yorkers (like me) were weaned on his candy bar in the 1970s.

We can keep parsing the particulars, but one matter that is indisputable is the reality that Jeter is the last face of the last dynasty, the final fallen pillar, like the last column of the old stadium, before Yankee Stadium became a theme park and martini bar instead of a ballpark. Exactly five years after he retires we will reminisce as he strolls into Cooperstown. We will wonder how he did it so easily, peacefully, and gracefully, since he won’t tell us.

Jeter even refused to admit how he wants to be remembered. There’s a season still to be played, you see. No time for reflection. It’s all about winning the next game, something that  Jeter has done 1,653 times, which earned Jeter some serious stripes, and his eternal pinstripes.

There are no more branches in the Torre Tree. Jeter is the last sentinel of selfless epoch, the quintessence of the nameless jersey. Jeter was just the pinstripes, bequeathed the fertile history of baseball’s royal family. And with him go the ghosts, who never really made the trip across the street to the new place.

Other than Mariano Rivera, no Yankee has earned a victory lap more than Jeter, who will surely be showered with the requisite, retirement doodads. Maybe during some point he will pause and please us with proof of his outward humanity. No one will question his toughness or his greatness if he sheds a tear. In fact, it will only make him more endearing. Maybe he saw Mo cry when he and Andy pulled him from his final home game and has saved his sensitive side for the very end. We can only hope.

The romantics paint a playoff montage, giving Jeter one more chance to ride off under his customary, autumnal eminence. But that won’t happen. It takes a lot more than nostalgia to win a World Series. And no one knows that better than Jeter.

Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel

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