Keith Strudler: I Come To Bury Caesar, Not To Praise Him
I’m going to state an uncomfortable truth. I’m not a huge Derek Jeter fan. Right now, that feels a little like admitting you’re not a fan of puppies and kittens. But it is what it is. I’ve just never been a huge fan of the baseball player commonly known in these parts as The Captain.
My sentiments have made life difficult to stomach over the past couple of weeks, where everyone from the baseball commissioner to Nike have serenaded Jeter with gifts, accolades, donations, and what feels like coronation into baseball immortality. Gatorade created a commercial that felt more like a campaign ad. And his shirt sales, buoyed by new branded merchandise this season, have now surpassed every player in baseball history. Right about now, loving Derek Jeter feels more like a political mandate than any eclipse of the heart. He’ll end his baseball career this Sunday in Boston, where even Red Sox fans are supposed to laud their longtime nemesis. At best, that feels forced.
Jeter is beloved for a long list of reasons, a mix of personality, performance, and just plain luck. Jeter played through an era of Yankee prosperity, particularly in the early part of his career where his legend and legacy were forged. His was a singular mainstay on a team that made the playoffs like an annual appointment. Add that to a series of clutch performances, and Jeter found himself him Cal Ripken territory – a great player who just kept on going.
But of course, Jeter’s appeal seems to come far beyond his performance. People love, or at the very least openly respect Derek Jeter because of how he carried himself both on and off the field. Despite his being the highest profile player in the biggest of markets, you didn’t hear about DUI’s or illegitimate children or bar fights or any of the other expectations when the lights shine brightly long enough. By all accounts, he was remarkably private, including about his much discussed romantic life. Where many athletes made public appearance a policy, he made it a restriction. Whether Derek Jeter is in fact the apostle as his dominion believes is a matter of debate. But at the very least, he never threatened the myth.
The same goes for Jeter’s place throughout the steroid era. By all accounts, he’s been labeled the best that never doped, something we’ll have to assume true. For his part, he never appeared on any list, and his body didn’t transform years into his career. That in itself has earned him high praise. Perhaps it's a sad testimony on modern sport, but simply avoiding incrimination is deemed heroic.
And that, in a nutshell, perhaps best articulates how and why Derek Jeter is viewed in such almost uncomfortably lofty regards, like he was the incarnation of Gandhi instead of someone who played baseball really well without screwing up. The American public wants, dare I say needs heroes. As tantalizing as TMZ and twitter and all other invasive media opportunities might be, at the end of the day, they’ve come not only at the price of our innocence. At some degree, they’ve also cost us our soul.
It’s a common refrain that we build up heroes just to tear them down. That’s not entirely true. At least in the case of Derek Jeter, we’ve built him up to keep him there. To preserve our youth, or idealism, or hopeful ideal that athletes can be more than just people. And even though Derek Jeter is simply that, just a good guy who made it through the right way, that itself have become the stuff of legend, at least compared to the Mark McGuires and Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez of the world. In Derek Jeter, the public has someone who, if nothing else, never disappointed, either on the field or off.
Maybe that’s why people like me have grown tired of the Jeter love affair, especially as it’s reached its apex. In the end, I’d like my heroes to have more, I don’t know, heroism. Someone who tries to changes the world, or at least a corner of it. Arthur Ashe, Jackie Robinson, heck even a Dan Jansen, who overcame countless obstacles on the way to a gold medal. Make them more than their sport. Ever other sports hero is, as they say, just a sandwich. So it’s not that I don’t like Derek Jeter. He seems like a great guy, and a great player. It’s just that I don’t like him that way.
Which right now, is just not a very popular thing to say.
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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