Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Jeter And The Mildly Encumbering Flaw

It would be inaccurate to say that Derek Jeter has a tragic flaw—just as it’s inaccurate to say he has an edge. He is not exceptionally tragic. Or even a little bit tragic. But he has, I guess, what you could call a mildly encumbering flaw—perfection.

Let’s review the facts.

He plays for the Yankees. He is, in fact, the first Yankee to be named captain since Donnie Baseball. He is known as Mr. November, a tribute to his walkoff home run in the wee hours of the morning on November 1st during the postseason of 2001. Generally speaking, people are fond of referring to him as clutch. And, not only that, he makes those crazy, standout fielding plays that dazzle the eye and go down in the annals of history for their greatness. He never says the wrong thing, never does the wrong thing. He always gets the girl—the girls. Sometimes, you just can’t help but want to scream, “Marsha! Marsha! Marsha!”

What is it about perfect people that is so inherently annoying? Is it that we resent them for making us aware of all of our own imperfections? Is it that we find perfection to be boring? That maybe, in fact, we believe that it is our imperfections that make us interesting? Or is that we don’t buy it? That, ultimately, behind every perfect person there is always a secret sex scandal, or worse, a secret love of Sarah Palin?

Whatever the reason, people can’t stand Derek Jeter. (Leaving aside, of course, all those people who worship him.) They call him a robot, they call him overrated, they look for unflattering ways to picks apart his statistics, to dispel the myth of his greatness. Those who don’t love him and laud him are irritated by just how much he’s loved and lauded. And they are ever-looking for ways to chip away at the exterior—to reveal the terrible truth about either his character or his ability.

I will admit that it was my initial instinct to resist liking Derek Jeter. It can be hard enough to earn respect as a female sports fan. And during Derek’s younger years, it seemed like men were just waiting for me to even mention him in conversation, as if that would explain the otherwise inexplicable interest in baseball. “Oh, I see. You think Jeter’s got a nice tush, huh? So, THAT’S it.” For small-minded morons, this is apparently the only logical explanation. By the way, all you girls out there walking around in pink Derek Jeter baby tees aren’t doing much to help the cause.

However, the baby tees were only part of the reason for my lukewarm reaction to Jeter in the beginning. Like a lot of people, I am wary of perfection. I take a “wait and see,” attitude. Assume that, eventually, the cracks will begin to show. So, by way of rebellion, for many years, I politely ignored him, focusing my attention on the likes of Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, Bernie Williams. I never hated Jeet. I just couldn’t jump on the bandwagon.

But, over time, I must confess, slowly but surely, he got to me.

No, he’s still not my top Bomber—that would be Mo—or even necessarily my number two. However, in recent years, I’ve started to get a little more defensive, a little more irritated, when people sling mud in his direction.

This year, Sports Illustrated surveyed 495 major leaguers to see which players they believed to be the most overrated. Jeter’s rank? Numero uno. (If this were football, he could put it on his jersey. Or not.) Interestingly, those same players ranked Jeter second in a survey on which player they would most like to build a team around. Sounds a little flip-floppy to me. But, then, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. (In case anyone in Washington is reading.)

This raises an interesting question—a hot button issue in the baseball community. By what measure, exactly, do we rate our players? The hard line Moneyballers say it’s all about the SABRmetrics. The Buzz Bissingers say, “OBP, ShmoBP; it’s all about heart.” I think that it is unwise to disregard either argument out of hand.

I happened to love Moneyball, and I think it raises interesting points about stats that old school baseballers are simply afraid to acknowledge. They harbor the fear that the usefulness of Moneyball will render them obsolete, nullify their special skills in understanding exactly who’s got “heart” and who doesn’t. That said, the brainiacs could stand to show a little bit more respect for their elders. To consider the possibility that, even though it’s crazy to make multi-million dollar decisions on the basis of gut feelings, there are factors beyond the numbers that do count for something.

The fact that so many players would choose to build a team around Jeter—that should be a consideration in our decision on how to rate him. Because what can we speculate that this means about him? That he’s a player around whom other players coalesce. That he’s a player whose presence in a clubhouse is a benefit to other players. That he is a player who is likely to get better performances out of other players. That he is an overall asset to his team. And isn’t that the whole point?

Just as the Moneyball way is scary to the olden-timers because it’s new-fangled and requires complicated math, the stat geeks tend to get judgmental and defensive about their system because they don’t know how to manage factors that can’t be quantified. Both matter. If they didn’t, Manny would still be a Chowda.

The bottom line about Jeter is that, from the very first day he donned his pinstripes, he put his everything into the game. Always hustling, always running out the ground ball, and making defensive plays that are—to my mind—impossible. The dive. The flip. Epic plays. True, Jeter’s fielding statistics are a far cry from perfect—they’re about the only thing—but when he does something special, it is impossible to deny his greatness. Yes, even as a fielder.

While Jeter’s defense may leave something to be desired, he is truly a phenomenal offensive shortstop. And he has plenty of numbers that can back me on that one. Among others, last night, he broke Lou Gehrig’s record for first on the all-time hit list at Yankee Stadium. Yet another thing for which we can resent him—setting a record that can never, ever be broken. And an awesome record at that. Prior to his record-breaking hit, Jeter had 1,269 hits in 8,001 at-bats. When Gehrig retired, so did he. I’m pretty sure we can all agree that Gehrig wasn’t overrated, right?

So, say what you want about Jeter. All I know is that this is the first year that the Yankees will not be playing in the postseason since cap got called up from the minors. I also know that Jeter always handles the press with dignity and respect for his fellow players. That rookies look to him as a role model. That, even though he’s a man-whore, at least he’s not a married man-whore, as are so many other players.

And, by the way, take an office-wide survey of the person you work with who most people believe to be overrated, and it will probably be someone who is getting paid a whole lot and rarely does anything wrong. You have to be highly rated to be overrated. And people don’t like people who are highly rated. As we’ve established.

Whatever. With or without the mildly encumbering flaw, I’d rather be Derek Jeter than Coco Crisp. Yeah, you know what’s coming, Coco Crisp. Cuz You Suck Coco Crisp.


thekoreanmafia said...

So basically, you think he has a nice tush.

Erica Shusas said...

Great post, Melanie. It's about time someone stood up for the near-perfect people (myself being one of many who have dozens of wonderful imperfections).

Amber said...

How do you go on about Derek Jeter and then at the end randomly bring up coco crisp? You're weird, stop dissing coco

koala said...

yeah, I'm with Amber......could you try to work in the You Suck Coco Crisps a little earlier in the post? That way I don't have to wonder if he sucks all the way until the end.....I get nervous wondering.