Of Cricket Fans And Memoirs

Last week, I sent in the draft manuscript for my next book–“a memoirish examination of the politics of cricket fandom”–to the editors at Temple University Press. The book, whose description, not title, I have indicated above, will now be reviewed, revised and then finally rolled off the presses as part of the series Sporting, edited by Amy Bass of the College of New Rochelle. By way of providing an introduction to the book, I’ve taken the liberty of excerpting–what else–the book’s introduction below.

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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.

The Difficulty of the Memoir

As my About page indicates, I am currently working on “a memoirish examination of the politics of cricket fandom” (contracted to Temple University Press, for the series Sporting, edited by Amy Bass).  Writing it has proven harder than I thought.

I began writing the book late in 2001 and had a hundred-thousand word draft ready late in 2004. I wrote with little guile, wanting to get my memories committed to paper, organizing in them nothing more sophisticated than a simple linear narrative. First this happened, then this, and so on. I organized the material in the only way I knew: by chunking it into simple temporal segments. I gave the draft to a couple of readers, and then forgot about it because I had other writing projects at hand.

Five years later, I submitted my draft to a couple of trade publishers.  One sent me a rejection, the other never replied. I then sent it to an editor recommended me by an acquaintance, and she rejected it too. I then sat on the book for another couple of years before making contact with Amy and sending it to her. She liked the project, and after a full review process at the press, I signed a contract.

And then I returned to work on a nine-year old draft. Unsurprisingly, I found a great deal of material I did not like. More importantly, I soon ran into a greater difficulty: it is hard to tell a coherent story about yourself – especially for public consumption.

We are the central characters of our lives. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are subject to constant, ongoing revision; we are good at forgetting, suppressing, and embellishing the little details that make it up.  (By our actions and our pronouncements we are also spinning one version of this story for everyone else.) This closeness of the narrative and its constantly shifting nature means that writing about it was always going to be challenging.

And how. I frequently find myself quite puzzled by the character in the story I am writing. I don’t fully understand him and would like to make him more comprehensible. But doing so, perhaps by greater confessional revelation or forensic detail, is not as straightforward as it seems. We have forgotten a great deal, and we often remember incorrectly. And sometimes, in an attempt to make more palatable the unvarnished truth, we might introduce incoherence elsewhere in the narrative structure–there is a thread that binds, and it can snap if stressed too much.  It is all too easy to second-guess oneself: What do I really need to tell the reader? Was this a good idea to begin with? We might construct a too-sanitized picture of ourselves, suddenly struck by timidity at the thought of exposure. Lastly, we sometimes sense that we have layers and layers of complex detail that need unpacking; a really coherent story about ourselves, one that we often take hundreds of hours to recount in a therapist’s office, might simply be too much for the written page; writing it sounds like a lifetime’s labors. And it would be tedious in any case, of little interest to anyone but ourselves.

I am not yet close to solving these challenges; I expect to write that dreaded email asking for an extension–beyond the summer, to the end of the year–all too soon.