Why Do Yankees Fans Venerate Derek Jeter?

In an interview with The Allrounder, my friend Amy Bass (a Red Sox fan!) takes on the following question:

The Yankees’ longtime captain, Derek Jeter, is retiring this season and has been the object of widespread veneration throughout the league. Do Red Sox fans share in this respect of Jeter?

and answers, in part, thus:

Let’s start with the fact that the season-long farewell party to Jeter is simply ridiculous, and what are we really hailing? A player who seems to be a good sport, doesn’t seem to do drugs, and apparently has never hit a woman? Let’s not make that special – instead, let’s strive to make that the norm. It all comes across, whether ovations in the stadiums or Nike commercials – as highly manufactured….Likely the key about Jeter is that he never left, a rarity in the era of players moving constantly in search of bigger paychecks.

As I noted in a blog post over at The Cordon at ESPN-Cricinfo, Bass is certainly right about the semester-long farewell to Jeter: it has been tedious and over-wrought, a ghastly marketing stunt. But I think there is more to be said for the adulation for Jeter, to acknowledge some important dimensions of his appeal for New York Yankees fans, and perhaps elsewhere.

First, what Yankees fans–and some members of the sports media are ‘hailing’–are, quite straightforwardly, some impressive batting and fielding statistics.:

He is the Yankees’ all-time career leader in hits (3,464), games played (2,746), stolen bases (358), and at bats (11,193). His accolades include 14 All-Star selections, five Gold Glove Awards, five Silver Slugger Awards, two Hank Aaron Awards, and a Roberto Clemente Award. Jeter is the all-time MLB leader in hits by a shortstop, and the 28th player to reach 3,000 hits.

Jeter was certainly never baseball’s best short-stop, and perhaps not even the American League’s, but he did feature on a few World Series-winning teams (with a a .351 batting average in the World Series), in a time when the Yankees were not building their teams with just big-money purchases, and while he was no Cal Ripken in the longevity stakes, he did play major league baseball for twenty years.

Second, Bass writes “Let’s not make that special – instead, let’s strive to make that the norm.” But one way to make Jeter’s behavior the norm is precisely to reward it, and not its converse, to aid in the driving home of the message that nice guys do not finish last. We should stop adoring admiring those who take performance-enhancing drugs, and beat their wives and girlfriends, yes; but we should also make clear our admiration is most perspicuously directed at those who do not behave thus.

Second, “the key about Jeter is that he never left” taps into a deeper truth about professional sports and its constituent unit, the franchise. These entities draw upon tribalism and nativism as a marketing strategy; they tap into a deep desire for ‘home’ in a world made up of transient, shifting identities. This produces some truly ludicrous claims about how  professional sports teams reflect a ‘local character’ but it does show that fans, even as they are aware that they are cheering for the sporting equivalent of Ford vs. Chrysler still hanker for a deeper form of identification. Jeter is not a New York local; he is from Michigan. But by staying with the New York Yankees for his playing career, he tapped into a fundamental New York archetype. Most New Yorkers aren’t from ‘here’ they are from ‘elsewhere’; what makes them New Yorkers is that they stay on; they don’t leave this maddening, overpriced, deeply-divided city and head elsewhere. Jeter might have stayed because his early years here ensured he would always get the best contracts and following here; perhaps, shrewdly, he looked ahead at his place in posterity and reckoned he would be best served by continuing his allegiance to the Yankees. Whatever the reasons, he stayed on, he became a ‘true’ New Yorker. Not just a transplant who used this as a jumping-off pad for the ‘burbs.’ That, in New York, was always going to inspire affection.

All celebrity in professional sport is manufactured; Jeter supplied some authentic raw material.

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