Tuesday, October 21, 2014

What we really learn from Jeter. It's not what you think.

Barely had the giddy anticipation resolved into its storybook Stadium ending than the realization hit the shortstop's legions of worshipers and his (few) remaining haters alike: This was indeed the only possible last act for Derek Sanderson Jeter, No. 2. The one difference between the worshipers and the haters was that for the latter group, the insight came with a grudging resignation that also reduces to a kind of worship. Re2pect. That Stadium ending was, without a doubt, Jeterian. The adjective was coined some time ago to recognize the man's seeming ability to bring about thrilling Deus ex machina plot twists that even a third-rate Hollywood script doctor would laugh off as “too contrived!”

A while later, after the last of the insipid post-game interview questions had been asked (with a note of wonder) and answered (with a note of impatience), cultural soothsayers began distilling for us The Meaning of Derek Jeter—not for the first time, of course, but now with a fully bookended appreciation of the man's oeuvre. The talk was of “seizing the moment,” “poise under fire,” “knowing how to win,” “wanting it," "wanting it more than the next guy.” Being the master of one's fate. One would've thought that Jeter had choreographed his entire career, down to its most implausible detail, by sheer exercise of will: as if, in some baseball-specific variant of Heisenberg, reality was changed by the introduction of Jeter.

Surely to fans, and now to countless others as well, Derek Jeter is less man than metaphor. But lost in the overwrought myth making is the real lesson—which is quite opposite the one we've been sold, and then resold, and then sold one last time (set to music) in all those heartwarming retrospective commercials. The career of Derek Jeter is in reality a crash course in man's actual, decidedly more passive relationship with his environment. It's a lesson that's surely more valid than the faux empowerment peddled by our ubiquitous merchants of infinite hope. And in its own quiet way, it's a lesson that may be more reassuring. That final charmed inning at Yankee Stadium, you see, was literally the only possible denouement for Derek. It happened because it had to. As is also true of every minute of every day in the lives of the 48,613 fans who were in attendance that Thursday night, the millions more watching at home...and all the rest of us mere mortals.

It happened, like everything else in life, because there was no other possibility. 

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For starters, spectacularity demands as a prerequisite the context for spectacularity. There is no rising to an occasion that does not exist.

Think of the cooperation that Jeter's ninth-inning heroics demanded from circumstances that Jeter himself could never have foreseen or orchestrated, unless we adjourn our discussion to the realm of the supernatural and also grant Jeter, in addition to his observed skills, the power of telekinesis. The comeback against the Orioles required that a reliable closer (who to that point had allowed five home runs all season) surrender a pair of long balls in a single inning, the second of them with two out. A single homer with the bases empty would've left the Yanks up a run and in no need of last-minute theatrics from Jeter or anyone else. A third blast would've put the Orioles up a run, thus changing the entire complexion of the Yanks' half of the inning. In other words, for Jeter to have his moment, the Yankee closer needed to do pretty much exactly what he did, no less and no more. Then the Yankee leadoff hitter needed to reach base and get moved to second, in position to be delivered by Jeter's single—which, had it been a few feet to the right or left, as easily could've occurred with just the tiniest shift in the operative physics, would've been out number two.

Other historic milestones in the Jeter legend can be similarly deconstructed:

The flip. The outfield throw had to be wildly errant, missing both cutoffs—but not so far off line that it was also beyond Jeter's maximum range. (And yes, folks, even the great Derek Jeter had a maximum range. He didn't salvage every wild throw in his 20 seasons in the Bigs, did he?) Nonetheless, had the runner been a tad slower, the tag at home wouldn't have been as dramatic, and had the runner been a tad faster, he would've been safe—as he might have been anyway, had replay then existed to validate the outcome.

The dive. For starters, that particular pitch had to be fouled into an area necessitating an uncommonly good play—and yet, again, it could not be fouled out of the field of play altogether. If the pitcher had thrown an inside fastball instead of an outside breaking pitch, Jeter might have caught the pop-up standing in his tracks at short. If the batter had been a righty instead of a lefty, we might today be waxing poetic about first-sacker Tino Martinez.

The Jeffrey Maier home run. It was Jeter who, in the opening game of the 1996 ALCS, hit the game-tying drive notoriously tampered with by 12-year-old Maier. Save for the boy's interference, outfielder Tony Tarasco quite possibly makes the catch, thus removing one of the earliest ingredients from the Captain Clutch meme. It bears noting that Maier was there that fateful Wednesday only because the previous day's rainout resulted in a make-up game; the scheduling change made an extra ticket available for the boy. Did Jeter summon the rain (and/or the ticket), too?

Our analysis of cause-and-effect can be regressed farther to the events that had to come together to place Derek Jeter in the one venue where his name would be intoned for all those years by the immortal Bob Sheppard. In that pivotal 1992 free-agent draft, the Houston Astros improbably became the first of five teams to pass on Jeter, despite his being named USAToday's High School Player of the Year in 1991. Houston mega-scout and Hall of Fame pitcher Hal Newhouser had been so fulsome in singing Jeter's praises, and was so incensed at his team's rebuff (the Astros drafted Phil Nevin), that he took early retirement the day after the draft. The Yankees almost passed on Jeter as well, concerned about wasting a first-round pick on a kid who might spurn their offer in order to attend college. But Yankee scout Dick Groch was more persuasive than Newhouser had been, prophetically assuring higher-ups, “The only place this player is going is Cooperstown.”

Even so, late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was sufficiently dubious about Jeter's readiness for such a key role prior to his rookie season (1996) that “The Boss” hatched a plan to trade away Mariano Rivera to secure veteran help at shortstop. Chew on the implications of that one deal alone, had cooler heads not talked Steinbrenner out of it. Would a different player patrolling short, at least for a time that season, have denied Jeter the first jewel in his crown, his Rookie-of-the-Year award? More importantly, without Rivera at the back end of the bullpen, one cannot help but wonder how less halcyon the days might have been in the Bronx over the ensuing decade and more. How many of those five World Series rings would Jeter's trophy cabinet still have in it? Aside from the incomparable Mo, Jeter had to be surrounded with other quality players: the three additional members of the so-called Core Four and the rotating cast of heroes kept in constant supply by Steinbrenner's thick checkbook.

Sans all the rings, Jeter still might have posted superlative numbers, but his career just wouldn't have the same symbolic gravitas had he posted those numbers playing for an also-ran. (Think: Ernie Banks.)

Also figuring in our narrative are events occurring long before Jeter arrived in the Bronx. It matters that young Derek grew up loving baseball more than football or hockey. Loving a sport is not, after all, something one chooses to do—no more than one chooses to love a woman or a flavor of ice cream. No one disputes that Jeter had the right stuff: He was unflappable, stoic, determined, indefatigable in pursuit of victory. And, there was that legendary work ethic: Not a natural defensive standout, he had to practice hard at the skills that eventually made him a Gold Glover. But again, were these ennobling character traits voluntary in the customary sense of the term, or were they more like his love of baseball or your love of chocolate ice cream? If Jeter achieved what he did because, essentially, it's who he was, then showering him with accolades is not unlike shouting putdowns at the person whose physical disability renders him unable to compete at a high level.

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This is why there is no universality in the empowering message of Derek Jeter. There may be a frangible lesson about striving—assuming one has the inner ability to strive—but to imply that we can all be Derek Jeter through the application of great effort is like implying that a squirrel can be an ocelot by merely trying harder. A lazy person is a lazy person, until/unless something, usually external, makes him less so. In the meantime, his behavior evinces laziness.

Granted, we hear that as a child, Jeter's parents made him sign a contract each year that set forth acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, and we credit that for his much-heralded personal discipline and impeccable behavior. Still, we all know kids who are “brought up right” and don't turn out very well, because the internal mechanisms are lacking: the predisposition to be serious-minded and disciplined. By nature, you must be able to be nurtured. That tractability was simply present in young Derek Jeter, in the same way that he had those striking green eyes and the million-dollar smile that would one day help him win him all those endorsement deals.  

Ty Cobb. At .366 lifetime, he came closest to can.
There is a knee-jerk tendency to recoil at this kind of thinking; I feel it too. We love our inspirational heroes and are not fond of demystification. We want so badly to believe that through great effort, Jeter was somehow able to “stretch,” to reach the unreachable star, because if that is so then perhaps we too can trascend. For similar reasons we want to find significance in the fact that his mother, Dorothy, forbade the use of the word can't in the Jeter household; we nod and tell ourselves that that is how Jeter came to be Jeterian. That's just silly. Derek Jeter posted a career batting average of can't. Like other great ballplayers, Jeter failed to get a hit seven times out of 10. If the absence of can't from his vocabulary is what explains his success, then why were there so many cases where he...couldn't? Why did journeymen pitchers sometimes get the best of him? Quite simply, Jeter was unable to surmount the indigenous realities of a pursuit—hitting—wherein greatness is measured in the ability to mitigate out-and-out catastrophe, such that a failure rate of 70% places one in the pantheon of immortals. He did what was doable. For him.
.310—not bad, but hardly a refutation of

Moreover, this young man who, to hear some tell it, was possessed of a mystical “will to win” that enabled him to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat nonetheless participated in well over 1000 Yankee losses. I suppose one is to assume that on those 1000-or-so dates, Jeter awoke beset by some bug that left his will to win compromised...

Even when it came to that climactic game-winning hit, it's not as if Jeter said to himself, "Oh, here's a nice little pitch, I think I'll hit it through that hole on the right side, just out of the reach of the second baseman...” In contrast, the hit was the product of decades of finely honed muscle memory guiding an inside-out swing that by now is so uniquely Jeter's that he might've trademarked it. It was a purely physical process that—as noted—could've easily gone awry had bat met ball with just a fractionally different angle.

For Deter Jeter, the remarkable things that fell into place did so because they were dictated at every turn by a series of antecedent or coincident events, known or unknown. We live in a physical world—the body is physical, the mind is part of the body; it runs according to established principles of cause-and-effect that apply even to beloved shortstops who “Do it their way.”

If we were of such a mind, and we knew all of the variables that came into play, we could regress the causation of Derek Jeter back much farther, and even farther back than that, waaay back. We could talk about how there had to be such a thing as baseball, and America, and his parents had to meet in just such a way, and so forth. We could regress Derek to the very beginning of time...except, that's when people start sighing and rolling their eyes (if you aren't already).

But, you ask, can't we learn to be better, more disciplined? (I'm hoping you're still engaged enough to ask that.) Yes. If we can. But not if we can't, and not before we're ready, and not before the circumstances congeal to produce our readiness. We cannot be affected by any external force that we do not have the capacity to be affected by. There is no such thing as “stretching” or “stepping up,” as the concepts are commonly framed by the devout Sportsthinkers and merchants of self-improvement. You are always doing what you can do, the best and the worst, at any given moment .

Therein lies the greatest message of Derek Jeter. We will all lead lives that by definition are the best and worst they can be. It is possible for you to do better than you're doing now, but that result has already been factored into your inevitable outcome; the circumstances that will make it happen are already under way, by whatever inscrutable interaction of internal and external forces. It is not possible for you to do better than you can do, better than you were "meant to" do. Period.

Sure, we all want to be Derek Jeter. And you know what? In a sense, we all are. So enjoy the ride.

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