MINNEAPOLIS -- This was the perfect final All-Star Game for Derek Jeter. Not because he had two hits, not because he received several massive ovations, not because his final sendoff was indulgent but still somehow understated. It was the perfect final All-Star Game for Derek Jeter because, in one moment, what Jeter is, and what we demand him to be, came into vivid focus. We are nearing the end of Jeter's career, and we still can't let him be anything but perfect. We can't let him just be a great player. He has to be a god.
The moment came mid-game, off the field. It came when National League starter Adam Wainwright, talking to reporters after giving up three first-inning runs, admitted the pitch he threw that Jeter hit for a double to lead off the game … he grooved it. "I was gonna give him a couple pipe shots," Wainwright said. "He deserved it. I didn't know he was gonna hit a double or I might have changed my mind."
The timing on this was unfortunate, though Wainwright, standing outside the National League clubhouse, couldn't have possibly known that. Just a few minutes earlier, Jeter had his big sendoff, ending his 2-for-2 night, and writers were typing their "Jeter's Perfect Farewell" leads and Harold Reynolds was feting Jeter the way only Harold Reynolds can and everyone was ready to hand him his MVP trophy and tattoo THE CAPTAIN on their faces. It was Jeter's night, that was the story, that was how this night would be remembered, and that was that.
And then Wainwright said what he said. It was as plain as day. He didn't hedge. He wasn't vague. He told the exact truth. He grooved a pitch to Derek Jeter because he respects Jeter so much he felt he deserved it. And then he owned up to it. He was asked the question. And he answered it. Now, as anyone who covers the St. Louis Cardinals will tell you, this is par for the course with Wainwright. He is well-liked among reporters in St. Louis for his frankness and approachability. He's a likable guy. My dad would call him "a straight shooter."
That doesn't mean you shouldn't be a little angry with Wainwright. You can make a strong argument that Wainwright was dead wrong to groove the pitch to Jeter, for several reasons, foremost among them … this game is supposed to count. Because the American League ended up scoring three runs that inning, including Jeter, Game 1 of the World Series will be played at an American League stadium rather than a National League one because Adam Wainwright respects Derek Jeter so much. (It's especially galling because that game could well be started by Wainwright.) If you're looking for a definitive reason that home-field advantage in the World Series shouldn't be decided by the All-Star Game, that's a terrific one.
But even more: It's actually sort of an insult to Jeter, isn't it? One of baseball's most famous stories -- and a rather apt metaphor for how the young will always view the old, for that matter -- is Lou Gehrig knowing it was time to retire when a teammate complimented him on making a routine play at first base. Gehrig asked out of the lineup the next day. Wayne Gretzky said something similar, telling Conan O'Brien that he made the decision to retire when he realized opposing players were giving him quick warnings before they hit him. Derek Jeter, if he's everything we've been claiming him to be for so long, would never want a pitch grooved like that. (One person who didn't mind a nice cookie pitch to say goodbye: Mickey Mantle, who sent Denny McLain the ball he hit the homer to pass Jimmie Foxx, a pitch McClain obviously grooved him.) This Jeter, our Jeter, he'd rather strike out, yes? Wainwright made him -- a Hall of Famer having his final sendoff -- look like a charity case. If you're going to get on Wainwright's case, get on him for that.
But that's not why Wainwright was criticized, or why he was forced to apologize to Erin Andrews during the game and act like he was kidding. The reaction among media -- who are paid to ask questions of players and managers that elicit honest reactions, and if the reactions aren't honest, they're paid to find out what the truth in fact is -- wasn't to thank Wainwright for his honesty. It was to blast him for not lying. "[A] very odd decision for Wainwright to talk openly about doing what he claims he did," said CBS Sports. Wainwright was "kind of a putz," said SB Nation. Jared Diamond of The Wall Street Journal was particularly incensed.
Seriously, I've got no problem with Adam Wainwright grooving a couple fastballs to Derek Jeter. None at all. But keep your mouth shut!- Jared Diamond (@jareddiamond) July 16, 2014
It wouldn't have been a thing if Wainwright had just kept his mouth shut. RT @peteanselmo: it's more insulting to Jeter than anything else.- Jared Diamond (@jareddiamond) July 16, 2014
I don't mean to pick on Diamond, who's an excellent Mets beat writer. But take a look at those Tweets. That is a professional reporter paid by a prestigious publication -- one with an outstanding sports section -- saying, explicitly, that he would have preferred, when a professional athlete was asked a question, that the professional athlete would have lied right in everybody's face. And you'll read a lot more of these in the next 24 hours, even after Wainwright's "apology." This is not a great argument for the utility of professional journalists.
And why did people want Wainwright to lie? Because now Jeter's night -- Jeter's perfect night -- was somehow sullied. Everybody had their stories written in the first inning. This was Jeter's last great moment, and of course he went 2-for-2 because he was special. Wainwright telling the truth meant that the Jeter's Great Night story had to have an asterisk. And Derek Jeter is never, ever supposed to have an asterisk.
The problem with the way we've always treated Derek Jeter is that we've repeatedly let -- demanded -- the story get ahead of the man, a man, I might add, we know absolutely nothing about. It's never been enough that Derek Jeter had more than 3,000 hits and is one of the 10 best shortstops of all time. He has to stand for so much more than that. True Yankee. Face of Baseball. A Throwback. Mr. November. Class. Professionalism. The Captain. The obsession to turn Jeter into a myth has been present from the very beginning of Jeter's career. It has never stopped.
Typically, all this drama and thwarted hagiography was happening outside of Jeter. (There's a great old Onion story about Jeter at home watching tape of a Yankees game on Fox and being appalled at how thick the announcers were laying it on about him.) Because it has never been about him. It has been about our desire for Jeter to stand for something bigger than him, bigger than all of us. We need Jeter to be a legend, so we have all screamed that he was, that he was different, that was better than everyone else. The flaws of baseball, of mortal men, just made Jeter shine that much brighter. He never gave us any part of himself, which turned out to be a genius strategy: We just wrote myths on his blank slate. Even here, at the end, we can't accept that, sometimes, in a game none of the players really care about winning, a guy got grooved one. It happens. But no. Jeter had to do it on his own. He had to. That's where the anger toward Wainwright comes from. How dare you take that from us?
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote:
Artists use frauds to make human beings seem more wonderful than they really are. Dancers show us human beings who move much more gracefully than human beings really move. Films and books and plays show us people talking much more entertainingly than people really talk, make paltry human enterprises seem important. Singers and musicians show us human beings making sounds far more lovely than human beings really make. Architects give us temples in which something marvelous is obviously going on. Actually, practically nothing is going on.
Derek Jeter is one of the best baseball players of all time. But that has never been enough, not even close. In retirement, the myth will grow even larger. Every time a player screws up, every time someone strikes out in a big moment, Jeter will get the Jordan treatment: That's not what Jeter would have done. Jeter played his last All-Star Game on Tuesday night, and later this year, he will play his final game. But we will never let him go.
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