By Jason Keidel
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You can find your own symbolism in the fact that the weather was flawless for weeks, until Derek Jeter’s last home game. And if you’d like to say the rain is the deity’s way of weeping, then enjoy the comfort of the cliché.
There’s no doubt, however, that Keith Olbermann rained on Jeter’s farewell parade this week. The natives are so restless and tired over the celebration that nerves are rather raw. The media and the masses are responding with high-pitch indignity. Even our own Craig Carton threw down on Olbermann’s seven-minute monologue.
But if you can cut through all the hot air and histrionics, Olbermann has a point. Or two. You can watch his video and parse the particulars yourself. But Olbermann made some of the very points that some of us have made for years. While Jeter is a first-ballot icon whose plaque in Cooperstown and acreage in Monument Park are assured, he was never the best player in the sport, is far from the best player in Yankees history and wasn’t always the best player on his own team.
We aren’t allowed to say this, of course, because the Jeter Apologist is so acutely sensitive that anything that resembles objective criticism is seen as abject criticism. So even if Olbermann embellished to get the attention, we in the industry can relate.
Indeed, when I started with WFAN 4 1/2 years ago, I was given one directive. No matter what I say, say it strong. New Yorkers don’t have time for someone who is unsure of himself. Whether they watch, listen or read your work because they love you or because they loathe you, the ratings don’t know the difference.
Sure, Olbermann exaggerated to make his point, like most of us do. But if you’ve watched him over the last two decades it’s part of his persona, and why he draws such visceral reactions. He’s also clashing with the key demo, which is a losing proposition because young men nudge the needle of commerce. And no one under 30 remembers anyone but Jeter. He’s the dynastic symbol of your youth.
If you go back to Mantle and Mays you laugh at any notion that Jeter should get 100 percent of the Hall of Fame vote. If you go back to the ’70s, as I do, you realize that the Yankees actually won a World Series or two before Jeter. He may be Mr. November, but he never had games like Mr. October. Maybe you had to see Reggie hit those three homers in Game 6, off three pitchers, on just three pitches. Maybe it’s easier to remember the homer against the Mets in 2000 and forget that Jeter indeed left 10 men on base during those four games that Boston won in the 2004 ALCS. Nostalgia is never objective.
Even the most rabid Jeter minion has to agree that there’s been some overkill here, particularly the stuff with Steiner and the shoes and such. Even WFAN host Mike Francesa took exception with all the decals. The beauty of the Yankees, of the pinstripes, is the simplicity — the bedrock uniformity of the uniform. Yankee Stadium still doesn’t have a sponsor, and there are no last names on the jersey, with the logo on the front always trumping the back.
Now that we’ve dispensed with defensive postures, let’s address the baseball points. As sacrilegious as this sounds, Olbermann was largely correct. Jeter was not the dominant player in baseball over his career, as his lack of hardware suggests. He never won an MVP award. He never won a batting title and never led the league in homers or RBIs. He never led the league in doubles or triples or stolen bases. He led the AL in hits twice in 19 years, and that was pretty much it. (Oh, he led the AL in runs in 1998.)
Sure, Jeter’s craft often lay in nuance, in the abstract forms of leadership and clutch play. His flip to Posada didn’t light up a stat sheet, neither did his iconic dive into foul territory during that July game in 2004. Jeter fits the pastoral baseball narrative. In a sport with no clock, that is played on grass under blue skies during the three months when most of our greatest memories are made, we naturally romanticize the best players of our youth. MLB has long cashed in on the Rockwellian notions of summer. It’s a beautiful game played in beautiful climes. And the ripples of Jeter’s play were felt by fans and his teammates, but not by sabermetricians.
It’s also true that Jeter was not a legendary fielder. Olbermann pointed out that Ozzie Smith got to the ball 29 percent more often than Jeter did, which totaled about one base hit per game. That’s a considerable gap. If it’s unfair to compare anyone to Smith, then we can go to offense, where three shortstops have won an MVP award since 2000. That would be Miguel Tejada, A-Rod and Jimmy Rollins, who put up prodigious numbers at the plate.
But like most stat geeks, Olbermann glazed over Jeter’s metaphysical import. He was not great at anything, but really good at everything. We so lust for the sexy stat — the home run, touchdown and three-pointer — that we just don’t get turned on by the sprawling career of consistent production.
The most important point that Olbermann missed — and it must be an intentional omission, because he’s too savvy to miss something so obvious — is that Jeter, unlike 80 percent of his peers, did not take steroids.
So it’s not fair to just belch the bromides about power numbers without acknowledging that he is one of the few who did it fairly. Look at Jeter’s physique. He never became Brady Anderson, never gained or lost 30 pounds of muscle in one offseason. His body never morphed into the cartoonish contours of Bonds, McGwire, Sosa or A-Rod.
And that’s an essential distinction. Jeter played old-school baseball by the original rules. Did he pop a greenie or two while they were still legal? We can’t know, but amphetamines never added 50 feet to fly balls or created the broken-bat homer. So Jeter’s numbers, and his career, should be framed in proper italics. He is the embodiment of the cliché — doing it the right way.
So Olbermann had a point, but he was overstated. Jeter’s defenders have a point, but they are overheated. Social media is split, and the dividing line is decidedly pinstriped. And forget Twitter, perhaps the most gruesome American invention since the atomic bomb. There’s no more vulgar medium than this apparatus, perfectly tailored to the ADD crowd, who think history was written in 140 characters. It’s home to hoards of online tough guys who hide behind handles and emblems, sniping in the most profane, sexist and racist tones from the comfort of their cubicles. Twitter is to accuracy what Madoff is to honesty.
We’re all just a little heated, a little haughty, a little self-righteous right now. Jeter, like all things Yankees, draws pointed posturing. You’re either all the way in — a drooling devotee who thinks Jeter is Jesus — or you’re a hater, envious of his looks, cash and cachet. You’re either into the deification or the defecation.
The truth, as always, is in the middle. The funny part is that everyone cares about this except for Jeter. His career speaks for itself.
If only we listened.
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