Saturday, August 20, 2011

Homage to DJ

Northern Michigan

Friday, August 12, 2011

A week ago I was holed up in a motel in Kalamazoo, the hometown of Derek Jeter, the best shortstop in the game of baseball today, with very few rivals in history. I'm not forgetting Ozzie Smith for defense, Honus Wagner for offense, and some may have had better range, some better power. But for all around play, including batting average (.312 lifetime), hits (over 3,000 so far), and fielding percentage (.976 lifetime), he is the most strongly balanced, statistically. And he doesn't take a lot of time off. In the fifteen full seasons he has played prior to this year he has been in an average of 152 games per season out of 162 total, not quite Cal Ripken/Lou Gehrig iron man status, but pretty damned good. As of this evening he has 3032 hits, making him 23rd on the all-time list. By the end of the season he should be 20th, with a bullet. At 37, Derek is showing his age just a bit now, his average dipping below .300, but if he has just three more average years he should finish among the top five or ten hitters of all time.

But that's not what I really like about Derek Jeter. For me, it's the less statistically tangible things that make the man. His commitment to the game isn't necessarily anything unique. You've got to want to play baseball to play it well. The fact that he's been a one-team guy, while that's less common today than in days of yore, isn't the thing either. And, truth to tell, he might dance his last waltz with someone other than the one he arrived with. When the Yankees can't use him any more, he's out of there, and he's not DH material. (Even the Tiger great Ty Cobb, with a list of records as long as your arm, some of which still stand, had to spend his last two ignominious seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics.) It's not the fact that Jeter's number will be promptly retired the moment he does or that he's a lock for the Hall of Fame. Or that he plays over 95% of the time and wants to play the rest. Or that he makes fewer errors in two seasons than most shortstops make in one. The technonerds of baseball, the Bill Jameses, might tell you that his proven defensive range, somewhat limited and getting more so, means that he makes fewer errors than others might, the theory being that if you don't reach, you can't miss. But no fielder has more error opportunities than a shortstop, and when you've played all season and have a single-digit error number by the middle of August, that's better than good.

It's not even the fact that he's good-looking and unassuming and keeps his temper
in check and keeps his personal life absolutely out of the press. No. It's a thing called humility. How a guy as talented and as wealthy as he is can remain so damned humble, in the best way possible, is nearly unfathomable. No rants and rages, no showboating, very little behavior that would embarrass his mother or father or the team.

One wonders just what kind of human this guy is, and yet he is human. And humane and philanthropic, as well he should be considering that his salary equals the GDP of the average third world country. And speaking of salaries, there are some fans who decry the ridiculous amounts of money baseball players make, but never stop to wonder into whose pockets that very money would be going (and used to go) if the players were not getting it. Does anyone really think the owners would be giving away beer and selling bleacher seats for $3.50 if they were still paying players the kind of chump change they got before free agency?

But back to Derek Jeter, the man. I recently watched a documentary they did on him to commemorate his having reached the 3,000 hit mark, called "Derek Jeter 3K" or something like that. I found myself marveling not at his greatness but at his almost boring sense of discomfort at being the subject of a show about him. For him it's about the game, not the fame. If he hits well but the team doesn't win his own accomplishments mean little to him. Off the field he lives well, for sure, and like any other jock is most interested in the jostling physicality and camaraderie that accompanies his profession. He's not particularly deep, nor is he shallow. He is, instead, just what he should be. A pure baseball player, as pure as they come, a knight of the round table of the game, a leader among equals, tending more toward Sir Galahad than toward Sir Lancelot, and always dedicated to the quest. The occasional few who snipe at him or spread unseemly rumors reveal biases of their own rather than anything really negative about him.

It's impossible to say for sure, but I can't see him becoming a color commentator, mostly because he isn't really that colorful. Never one of those opinionated veterans of the game like Al Kaline, who let their conservative personal politics infect the play-by-play. Not sure how good a manager he'd be, either. The best players do not make the best managers, probably because they can't relate well enough to those who aren't as good as they are and never will be. Ted Williams comes to mind in that context. At any rate, few Hall of Famers have been managers, unless they were player-managers, which is a kind of specialized uber-management.

Overarching everything else about Derek Jeter is a sort of gentleness and unflappability and generosity of spirit. Far more than Brutus, about whom Shakespeare had Marc Antony say it originally in an epitaph, one could justly say about the living Jeter, that "his life is gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up and say to all the world, This is a man."

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