There's a story about Derek Jeter, included in Ian O'Connor's 2011 biography of the longtime Yankees shortstop, that reveals a lot about how careful Jeter is to maintain his image. Jeter had thrown a small party at his house, and as guests arrived, he asked them to remove their cell phones and cameras and place them on a table for the duration of the party, in order to protect his privacy. At first glance, such measures seem totally paranoid. But the more you think about it, the more you realize that Jeter knows exactly what he's doing.
It's hard to overhype a player that will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, but it sometimes happens with Jeter. There's long been a desire to label him with superlatives that even a legendary player like Jeter hasn't quite earned. So as Jeter prepares for his final big-league season, know that he's not the greatest Yankee of all-time, or the greatest shortstop ever, or the best player of his generation. But one superlative really does apply: He's the most media savvy athlete we've ever seen.
There's a long list of athletes who've used the press to cultivate a persona, which requires a certain type of savvy. But given the era in which he plays, the city in which he's spent his entire career and the team for which he's starred, no one compares to Jeter.
Athletes today, no matter where they play, are under constant scrutiny. And it's even worse in New York, where every slip-up by someone as famous as Jeter will surely find its way to the front page of the tabloids. But Jeter's demonstrated remarkable discipline to avoid not just real scandals, but the kind of non-scandals that work their way around the internet and chip away at a player's reputation. (Incidentally, Jeter's teammate, Alex Rodriguez, was the king of this latter category even before he'd been accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs. My favorite dopey A-Rod scandal has always been the time he kissed the image of himself in a mirror for a Details magazine photo shoot. Media savvy, that was not.)
Jeter has mastered the art of the boring interview, saying nothing and just enough all at once. Talking to Jeter will produce a usable pull quote, but it won't likely produce anything interesting. That's harder to than it sounds: Say too little, and you risk irritating the very press corps that might otherwise build you up. Say too much, with too little consideration for every word, and controversy is bound to follow. But Jeter's somewhere in between, speaking in perfectly dull Jeterian sound bites.
Consider what happened on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium earlier this week. Jeter didn't run hard out of the box on a ball that just missed going over the fence, and he narrowly avoided getting thrown out at second while trying for the double. That earned him teasing from his teammates in the dugout, but also a grilling from reporters after the game. First, Jeter joked that he did it on purpose, just to prove he still had an extra gear. Then, when the joke fell flat, he gave reporters the quote they needed: "I mean, look, maybe you get caught up in Opening Day and I thought it was a home run. I hit it good enough to be one, it just wasn't, didn't go out. You probably haven't seen it. Probably won't see it again. But what can you do?"
The attempt to disarm reporters with a jokey answer didn't do the trick, but Jeter played it just right anyway. As the New York Times put it (while also noting that a track record of hustling helped his case): "Such clear admission of wrongdoing is the easiest way to blunt criticism."
Of course, media savvy in the 21st century involves more than an understanding of how to be interviewed. And it requires more than banning friends of friends from taking drunken selfies with you at a party. It demands an athlete be interesting, just not too interesting. What's especially remarkable about Jeter is that he walks that line despite considerable public interest in his personal life. Unlike Mariano Rivera -- who's also heading to Cooperstown, but whose personal life has never been newsworthy -- Jeter has spent his entire career as a bachelor in New York, dating any number of famous women, and even with that level of scrutiny has managed to avoid overly negative press. (Even the unflattering items that do exist are often either real stretches or otherwise hard to believe.)
Perhaps the closest Jeter's come to a real scandal was back in 2003, when Yankees owner George Steinbrenner -- in old-school Boss mode -- criticized Jeter for staying out too late and losing focus. It had all the makings of the perfect tabloid story, the kind of thing that could stick to Jeter and become a part of public image for years. Jeter was annoyed with Steinbrenner and said so, telling the AP that he didn't think Steinbrenner's criticisms were fair. He was even keenly aware of how something like this can spread: ''This story is not just New York," said Jeter at the time. "This story has developed into a national story.''
Here's the money quote from Jeter from back then, about how Steinbrenner made reference to a particular birthday party: "That's been turned into that I'm like Dennis Rodman now." (Rodman, by the way, has long understood how to use the media to develop a persona, but unlike with Jeter, all the attention makes him more famous, but not necessarily more likable.)
But that story turned into Jeter's greatest PR coup: He and Steinbrenner not only made up, they had some fun with their spat, filming a Visa commercial that referenced it. Later that year, Steinbrenner would name Jeter captain of the Yankees -- and that would ultimately be the label that would stick.
Increasingly, athletes are treated as entertainers by the press (and not just the sports press), even if media attention is an inconvenience to many of them. Athletes talk to reporters every day because they're forced to, but unlike a movie star trying to charm an audience into seeing a film, such interactions don't often yield much beyond the most basic details. Jeter, like many other ballplayers, dutifully answers questions on a daily basis. But there's nary a controversial word in Jeter's responses -- and rarely anything especially revealing.
It's why Jeter's retirement letter, posted to Facebook last month, was so refreshing. In it, he made a reference to looking forward to starting a family when he retired -- an uncharacteristically candid thing for Jeter to say. Perhaps, as his final season plays out, we'll see a Jeter less concerned about saying the exact right thing, and more open to giving honest answers. With the end of his career no longer some abstract future concept, we may see a more reflective Jeter this season, even if it's unlikely he'll start airing two decades worth of grievances.
Jeter's farewell tour might wear on non-Yankees fans, who for the second consecutive summer will witness a drawn-out good-bye for a New York player. But there's little doubt Jeter himself will play it just right, saying all the right things about all the right people. His baseball skills may have diminished, but he's still as media savvy as ever.