By Jason Keidel
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Even as a lifelong Yankees fan, Derek Jeter never moved me the way he moved most of you. He was a novelist’s nightmare. He told you everything and showed you nothing. His postgame pressers were a burden of bromides, corporate clichés that he could repeat by rote for 15 years. It was his persona to hide his personality.
I was a Mariano guy. He wore his heart on his blessed right arm. You could see Mo’s soul on his face. Of course, that doesn’t make one player, or man, better than the other. It’s just a matter of aesthetic appreciation.
But all these comparisons between A-Rod’s 3,000th hit and Jeter’s are woefully misguided. Sure, they both got it at home, in the Bronx, while whacking the historic hit over the blue outfield wall under a blue sky. But that’s where the parallels end. Beyond the obvious physical enhancements that hurled him up the hit list, and his obvious allergy to the truth, A-Rod has never been what Jeter was.
For all his shortcomings — and yes, Jeter had flaws — we never had to worry about him popping up to spring training with absurdly bulging biceps, tremendous traps, an extra three inches on his thighs, or a mushrooming sneaker or cap size. We never had to worry about him flying a stripper around the nation while his wife and mother of his children was waddling around the homestead.
We never had to worry about Jeter’s integrity or veracity. Some of that was because he never said anything of substance. But it was also because he was born professional and polished. He was blessed with the gene of perfect persona. He never inserted his foot or other appendage in his mouth.
Jeter never showed up late or showed up the opponent, and he never left his team in the lurch while flattened under Bud Selig’s fist, suspended for an entire season. And that speaks to an essential difference between the two legends.
There’s an ancient life maxim that 90 percent of the battle is showing up — at work, at home, for friends, for family, for yourself. Bring the body and the brain will follow. No one epitomized the hard-hat ethos of the New Yorker more than Jeter.
And A-Rod just had to look leftward, about 30 feet from his spot on the diamond, to see the real Pride of the Yankees. Jeter wasn’t a teammate or friend as much as tormentor and antagonist, an eternal emblem of what he was and A-Rod wasn’t.
More than anything — more than the sweat and stats and epic production, the empirical reality that he was a better player than Jeter by any normal baseball metric — he could never be the one thing he coveted the most. Beloved. No double down the alley, no dart down the line to spear a bullet and no monstrous homer that tickled the stars before landing in the lap of a rabid fan could cloak the pain he felt every time Jeter was lauded and applauded by the fans, the masses and even the media.
Jeter turned hardened, cigar-chomping beat reporters into his personal cheering section. Jeter has owned more hearts and has more heart than A-Rod ever could. Because the decision to toy with biology is a decision to give up on so many other things, particularly your dignity.
Thumbing through A-Rod’s rap sheet is like a legal turkey shoot. It’s easy, boring and gratuitous. We know what he’s done, what he’s admitted doing and what he still won’t admit he’s done despite the archives of evidence against him.
But we adore comeback, encores and second chances. And A-Rod is having a mini-revival this year, as the meat of a vegetarian lineup. The Yankees have a pedestrian record in a putrid division, which means they will contend all year unless Tampa, Toronto, Boston or Baltimore has a midseason epiphany.
And this is the first time A-Rod is getting a chance to shine on the diamond without his former friend bogarting the bold ink and commandeering the clapping. Even I, the most brazen A-Rod basher around, feel a little happy for the guy. Few men in sports or human history have fallen more publicly or precipitously than Alex Rodriguez.
His surprisingly robust army of apologists are in full-throated vehemence. They think this season is somehow a referendum on his talent and integrity, proof positive that he never needed PEDs in the first place — which is why Fan is a truncation of Fanatic. We can ignore their ignorance and still be slightly happy for the man.
Just stop comparing him to Jeter — even for a day, for an inning. Even for a hit. Especially the 3,000th hit.
Follow Jason on Twitter @JasonKeidel.