Derek Jeter has been a major league baseball player for 20 seasons, in the biggest media market in the world, on the most recognizable baseball team in human history. He has given thousands upon thousands of interviews, written two books (with another coming in September) and hosted Saturday Night Live. You have heard Derek Jeter speak more than any other athlete over the last two decades. You couldn't have avoided daily doses of Derek Jeter if you tried.
Yet I'm not sure the average baseball fan could give you more than five biographical facts about Derek Jeter, and three of those would have the word "Yankees" in them. Derek Jeter is a fantastic baseball player, one of the 10 best shortstops of all time and one of the 100 best overall players of all time, but I've always been more impressed by how he has lived in the public eye -- and the dead zero center of the public eye -- and given us nothing about himself. Derek Jeter has played for the New York Yankees for 20 years and somehow generated not a word of negative publicity. Not just that: Nothing has touched him. Derek Jeter has lived through the heyday of the tabloids and TMZ and everything else that has bubbled up from our culture's id, and the worst thing that's ever leaked about him is he looked sort of chubby in a photo once. He has proven a master at coming across as the "Ideal Classy Baseball Player Built Out Of Class."
This is a miracle, arguably more impressive than anything Jeter has ever done on the field. It's sort of baffling how he's done it. I've interviewed Jeter a few times, and he is not forthcoming, flattering or unusually open in any way. He's actually a difficult interview, not because he's so combative, but because he's so empty. He has mastered the art of talking without saying anything. There are words, but there is no meaning: Everything you ask just comes right back to you, smelling of bleach. Derek Jeter makes the act of interviewing seem sort of stupid. (Which it kind of is sometimes.) Interviewing Jeter reminds one of that old Mitch Hedberg line about playing tennis: "The depressing thing about tennis is that no matter how good I get, I'll never be as good as a wall." No matter how skilled you are at interviewing, you'll never be better than Jeter's wall.
This has led not to antipathy from the press corps; it has led to its exact opposite. The hagiography of Jeter has been in evidence since his first day in the majors. (The broadcasters called him "brilliant" after his first big-league hit.) My favorite was when ESPN called him "the face of baseball" by having Tim Kurkjian, almost creepily, write "Jeter has a nice face, a rugged face, a handsome face." The Onion memorably skewered the media worship with its "Derek Jeter Makes Easy Play Look Easy" story. (Sample faux quote from Robinson Cano: "Watching him day in and day out, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that everyone makes that kind of play all the time.") Only Jeter gets a "What Makes Jeter Great?" story that features quotes from Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Joe Namath and LeBron James.) This has had the desired effect: Fans adore Jeter not just because he's a great player, but because everyone is always telling them to. They do not react well when someone occasionally argues otherwise, believe me.
Much of this, I suspect, is because we know so little about Jeter that when other players fail -- whether it's Alex Rodriguez using PEDs, or Robinson Cano not being "clutch" or Randy Johnson being surly with the media -- it can't help but make him look better when reflected back in his direction. Every time a person not as skilled at hiding in plain sight as Jeter screws up, Jeter benefits. It's a impressive skill, but it doesn't actually say anything about him. In the absence of any actual information, people of course have speculated and told apocryphal tales. (Gossip abhoring a vacuum and all.) But there's nothing to hang on to.
Which leads to the ultimate question: As Jeter plays out his final season to considerable fanfare, who is this person? It is worth asking what we actually know about Derek Jeter after these 20 years in the public spotlight. Like, what the traits are -- not baseball stuff, no on-field business -- that make up the human organism we call "Derek Jeter." I spent much of the day on Wednesday combing through various biographies and profiles of Jeter to see what I could learn, what Jeter let us in on, what makes him him.
Here is the sum total of my findings:
- He's "a bit of a germ freak" who won't use public bathrooms. (Rick Reilly, ESPN)
- He has dated many attractive women.
- He once asked all the guests at a party he hosted to turn in their cellphones before they came. (Ian O'Connor, "The Captain")
- He is "sensitive to criticism," which some of his friends believe could possibly be because he dealt with some racism in his youth. (Ian O'Connor, "The Captain")
- He can be "cool and distant and suspicious." (Ian O'Connor, "The Captain")
- He once "baptized" Alex Rodriguez in victory champagne. (Ian O'Connor, "The Captain")
- He "looks like a normal guy." (Mike Zimmerman, Men's Health)
- He's "competitive to a fault." (Mike Zimmerman, Men's Health)
- He has his own perfume. (Avon)
- He is "business-like," and the Yankees clubhouse is like that, too, because of him. (Joe Posnanski)
- He's a "genuine, down-to-earth guy." (Seth Mnookin, GQ)
- He doesn't care what people think about him. (Joel Sherman, New York Post)
That's it. That is honestly all I found. That's 20 years of biographical detail, right there. That's thousands of interviews, dozens of profiles, several books, countless television specials and highlight packages. That's all we have.
Rick Reilly memorably wrote about Jeter on Wednesday, "If there was a better man in sports, I never met him." He must know Jeter a lot better than the rest of us.
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