A funny thing happens when you get older in baseball: People start to treat you like you did something special.
And let's face it, to last in a what have you done lately game, where the young eat the old and the fans roast you when you falter, the simple fact that Derek Jeter has stuck around as long as he has is something special on its own. The amazing career he's managed on top of his resiliency will make him a first-ballot Hall Of Famer, and the ridiculous levels of deification he's undergone over the years will make him a cultural symbol of decades to come.
So yeah, when a guy like Jeter walks up to home plate in a game that exists to honor greatness, you're damn right he's going to get a couple of center-cut fastballs. The All-Star Game is about showing off star power, and when you've done as much as Jeter, you're going to get by with a little help from your friends.
That, ladies and gentleman, is how this business respects its own -- always has and always will. When Adam Wainwright told reporters that he gave Jeter a couple of "pipe shots" in what was essentially the Derek Jeter Show, all I could think was, "Duh." Any pitcher in baseball would have done the same. Any umpire in last night's game would have given Jeter the borderline call. Any catcher would have given him a tip-off on where he was setting up. Any middle infielder would have pinched second base to open up gaps for Jeter to punch a ball through. Any outfielder would have taken a bad break on a looper that had any chance of landing. And any manager would have batted Jeets leadoff despite a list of younger, faster, superior options.
All of the fans who are mad that Wainwright grooved a pitch for Jeter had better not be the same who, just a day earlier, when All-Star Game lineups were released, said the AL was at a disadvantage because rickety old Jeter was batting leadoff. You want to talk about respecting a player for where his skills actually are, about being competitive and not doing someone favors? OK, if we're living in that world, Jeter isn't the leadoff hitter. He isn't the shortstop. Hell, he's not even on the damn All-Star team!
But the All-Star Game isn't about real competition. It's a game where players relieve pitchers in groups. Where Larry Walker turns his hat around and switches batter's boxes. Where guys hug on the field and get ovations. It's not the players fault that the powers that be decided the game should decide the World Series home-field advantage, or let fans vote for portions of the lineup -- that's the game trying to milk as much money as possible under the guise of relevancy. The All-Star Game is a spectacle. A pageant. A giant green, brown, and lime runway under bright lights for our favorite baseball supermodels to strut and spin on while wearing this year's NL and AL jerseys. It's manufactured magic, with all the glitter and glitz the current season's star power can muster.
And when you manufacture magic, something has got to give for it to work. You're lying to yourself if you think a 40-year-old man can still turn on a stud pitcher's best cutting fastball and drive it on command so a crowd can swoon. Even under optimal circumstances, even in batting practice there are still groundouts and whiffs. Baseball is a game of luck, but it's also a game of skill -- and as skills depreciate, the luck has to go up to compensate.
It wasn't about Wainwright believing Jeter couldn't be as good as he once was. It was about Wainwright understanding that you can get a great pitch to hit and still miss it. It was about Wainwright understanding the significance of the night, to both Jeter and the fans who expected a player to live up to something nearly impossible to live up to -- greatness on demand. Wainwright accommodated everyone out of respect for Jeter's incredible career and the outrageous expectations heaped on him in a game that promises All-Star entertainment, theatrics and nostalgia. The last thing anyone wanted to see last night was the personified greatness that is Derek Jeter take an 0-fer. By God, think of all the missed opportunities for standing ovations; think of all the furious Yankees fans; think of all the sad families that named their first born son Derek in honor of The Captain.
You must realize by now that it's entirely possible Derek Jeter likes himself less than you and I like him. How could he not? How could he worship himself like we worship him and he not be turned into an arrogant bastard we all abhor? Sometimes I think it must suck to be Jeter. All these players treating him with so much respect that he can't actually see how good he is anymore. Everyone thinking so highly of him that he could never be low. He's become too big, too classy, too holy to get a fair shake. Sometimes you almost wish he acted like a little bit more of an a--hole, don't you? I mean, do ya think Wainwright grooves a pitch for A-Rod?
No, of course you don't want him to be less than what we've made him into. But the price for that is we all have to lie a little about what we're actually seeing.
Some may declare that no player is bigger than the game, but such players do exist. Jeter is most definitely bigger than baseball, and we've made it that way. Now, when another player gives him his pitch to drive -- the one everyone knew was coming -- we are angry that it didn't come naturally. But what has been happening around Jeter all season is not natural. How many players get to declare they are retiring and subsequently have "farewell tours"? How many get Nike commercials honoring their legend? How many standing ovations do they get just for coming out of the dugout? Do you honestly think Jeter won't get another pipe shot in his final games of the season if those games he's participating in could have results that don't really matter?
You can't criticize Adam Wainwright for opening his mouth and distilling the process in which we're all participating into a few simple words. You can only criticize yourself for making the truth into heresy. Derek Jeter is great, yes, but he's also older, slower and less effective. And it's hard to make magic happen on command when you're up against Father Time and Mother Expectation. Wainwright did his part, a part I think we, if we're honest, expected him to do. But then he acknowledged that he did it and broke the third wall. He made us aware of the fact that, instead of watching a real story, we were, in fact, at a play watching grown men struggle to act the role we created for them.