We learned on Feb. 12 that Derek Jeter would make the 2014 season his last in baseball on account of a combination of injuries and general fatigue. The timing sounds right: The Yankees' shortstop is on a one-year contract and will turn 40 this June, in the midst of his 20th campaign in the majors.
This is an article from the Feb. 24, 2014 issue
Jeter's exit shall no doubt fuel Yankees fans' existential dilemmas. Since 2010 they have watched the retirements of Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Pettitte again, and Mariano Rivera. With Jeter, that cast made up the so-called Yankees Core Four. But Jeter's departure looms larger than the others', for he has provided far more than routinely above-average contributions to a string of maddeningly successful baseball teams. What is Derek Jeter? He has represented singular team-centrism but also superstardom and celebrity. He has represented tireless effort but also effortless superiority. He has represented workaday reliability but also superhuman capacity in the most daunting circumstances. He has, it seems, come to stand for most anything. Jeter, with his five world championships and 3,000 hits, is big—but his myth is bigger.
The myth of Jeter owes everything to the circumstances of its creation. He could not have become Derek Jeter without playing in New York or for the Yankees. The city adores style and attitude—think of how New York fell for the pugnacious 1990s Knicks and Rex Ryan's semihapless Jets—but it has a soft spot for excellence, as anyplace else might. Jeter, granted a healthy head start of credibility by the pinstripes he wore and the triumphant but dusty history they evoke, quickly went about making excellence his signature trait.
He molded his Yankees in that image, compelling mid-to-late '90s New Yorkers to forget about George Steinbrenner's once meddlesome hand, transforming the Boss from baseball pariah into something of an elder statesman. Jeter's remaking of the team allowed Yankees fans to reject Alex Rodriguez (who won two MVP awards and a World Series in New York) as something less than a true Yankee.
It helped that the people ascendant in New York during the Age of Jeter—the people who would later fill, or not fill, the Legends Suites at the new Yankee Stadium—were themselves embracing success as style. Jeter, corporate in his on- and off-field comportment, rose in tandem with a buttoned-up and image-conscious Wall Street. When the team in 2002 launched the YES Network in partnership with Goldman Sachs, the pairing could hardly have been more fitting.
The Jeter myth, though, had to be spun and sent off to the masses somehow—no easy task, since the most famous ballplayer of his generation happened to be one of its least voluble. New York helped here too. The nation's media capital happens to house lots of daily newspapers (which mattered more then than now). To write about the team back then really meant to write about Jeter, the best player during a run of championships. Greater New York hardly contained a heart that the suave young ironman shortstop failed to capture.
Yet reportorial access has never guaranteed insight, and the relentlessly positive Jeter never gave away much about who he is. He worked hard, came from a good family, liked pretty women (Mariah Carey, Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel ...). So Derek Jeter became the local writers' chimera, vivified by their gushing prose. He was a role model! He could do no wrong! He was the last man in baseball who would ever use steroids! (And you shut up about his glove!)
For all the good that Jeter's Boswells may have done him—their words seemed to echo in Jeter's advertisements for Nike, Gatorade and Ford—they may too have done him a disservice. Their effusion led some naturally skeptical fans to question whether this guy from Kalamazoo, Mich., was all he was cracked up to be. A standout baseball player became a one-man referendum on media mythologizing.
Perhaps there's an even wider-reaching downside to the press's exuberant telling of the tale. After Jeter announced his plans to retire, a number of his successors in big-market stardom extolled his behavior. Mike Trout, David Wright, even Hanley Ramirez—they all spoke of how they'd modeled their careers, on and off the field, after Jeter's. Seriousness with their craft, blandness with the press—not a bad game plan, given all the success Jeter had with that approach.
But to what end? By now the rest of the media world has its attention fixed firmly on bigger men playing louder sports. Baseball, meanwhile, struggles in its search for a crossover star to inherit Jeter's mantle. That's not his problem. He never asked to be Derek Jeter.
In a surprise, the usually social-media-shy Jeter didn't leave the news of his retirement to his myth-makers. He announced his exit with a 703-word Facebook post in which he wrote of wanting to embark on new challenges in philanthropy and business. One such business, unveiled in November, is Jeter Publishing, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. He says he'll be closely involved. Somehow, Derek Jeter's definition by way of the written word is just beginning.
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