Keith Strudler: Jeter's Last All Star Game
Talking about Derek Jeter is like talking about Ronald Reagan. No matter what you may think of him, it’s almost irreverent to say anything bad out loud. That was certainly the case at last night’s MLB all-star game, where Jeter was given a standing ovation that would approach Cats on its final Broadway appearance. For over a minute, the Minneapolis crowd and every other player on the field stood and applauded the 40 year old when he came to bat in the first inning of his final all-star appearance. That even included St. Louis pitcher Adam Wainwright, who took off his glove and stepped off the mound to congratulate the Yankees star.
Then, that same pitcher threw two pitches to Jeter, one of which was hit for double. A perfect end to a storybook career. Until it started to circulate on twitter and later from Fox’s Ken Rosenthal that perhaps it was too perfect, that Wainwright had essentially lobbed them in there for Jeter to hit, because he deserved it.
After the ensuing storm, Wainwright later clarified that he misspoke, that he hadn’t turned the all-star game into slow pitch softball. That he simply used the wrong words, and his humor was taken the wrong way. We’ll never know the veracity of his statement, although I’d say in the grand scheme of retractions, this one is pretty bad. It’s not quite in the stratosphere of “I didn’t inhale,” but it’s close.
Jeter seemed largely unaware of the controversy, and accepted either reality. As a hitter, there’s not much else you can do. And as he noted, you still have to hit it, which gets lost in the nuance of 90 mile an hour pitches, no matter how hittable they may appear.
Much of the critique of this scandal or misunderstanding, depending on your perspective, is based on three fronts. First, that this game actually matters, since the winning league secures home field for its World Series representative. So giving an inch to the competition might cost you or your teammates come October. Second, that Wainwright disrespected the game and Jeter by not giving him his best and demanding the same. And third, that by doing this, and then talking about it, he took attention away from what should have been Derek Jeter’s swan song.
There’s probably some truth to all of these, since, let’s face it, Wainwright might have now thrown the most famous all-star pitch since Randy Johnson nearly took off John Kruk’s head. And, I suppose we’d all like to see everyone’s absolute best every night, not some Disney-fied version of the game. Then again, try watching the NBA all-star game with a straight face. At some points, it’s like they’re all playing for the same team. And even though this game might count, which is a problem in itself, one meatball up the middle is the last of the competitive issues with this contest, starting with how they put together the roster in the first place. So if you want to lament the competitive integrity of the MLB all-star game, you better carve out some time.
But what’s impressive amongst this entire discourse isn’t the fan reaction or even Wainwright’s response. It’s the universal accolades granted to Derek Jeter himself. Rarely in a team sport, and I do mean rarely, does a single player capture the fancy of an entire public, other players included. In many cases, we build up our heroes to enjoy watching them fall. Or in other instances, beloved players are hated just as much. Take Tom Brady, who wouldn’t get a tip of the cap from Jets fans if he solved the debt crisis. Or LeBron James, who might as well consider Miami a foreign country. But that’s not the case with Jeter right now. When people got mad at Adam Wainwright, they got mad because he dared defy a hero, or at least our perception of one. Disrespect, even if well intentioned, is just unacceptable.
Why is Derek Jeter seen this way, when so few are? Perhaps it’s because he’s won so much. Or because he’s clutch. Perhaps it’s his stoic persona, or because he’s never taken controversial positions, from the Michael Jordan school of fame. Perhaps it’s New York, and maybe it’s because he dates supermodels. Most likely, it’s all of that, the equation for American royalty, one that’s harder and harder to equate in the modern social media age.
Of course, if you don’t believe all that, well, it’s probably best to keep it quiet. As Adam Wainwright found out last night, there are some things you just can't say out loud.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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