Will the phantom HBP change the way people think about Derek Jeter?


I’ve been chewing on the phantom Jeter hit-by-pitch since last night. Logically speaking it was a small, silly play that made me chuckle. But it got me thinking about bigger, less logical issues about Jeter, his place in the cosmos, the media and that kind of stuff.

years past, this would almost certainly be called “a heads up play” by Jeter. He would
be seen as being gritty or resourceful or whatever. Doing whatever it took to win.
I have yet to read the New York papers this morning, but if I had to guess I’d say that will still likely be the story today. 

But I can’t help but think that there’s someone in
the New York media landscape — be it a columnist or a talk radio host or whoever — who is thinking hard
about calling this one differently. Someone who’s thinking of casting the move as desperation rather than resourcefulness, and who will use it as a hook for a larger story
about Derek Jeter being “lost at sea” and, for the first time, casting
him as a pitiful figure
in their next column or their 8:45 segment or whatever.

To be clear, I wouldn’t buy into such a notion, because it would be reading way too much into a silly play. More bluntly, it would be a big a pile of
baloney, as is any characterization of a ballplayer based on a freakish, flukish kind of play. Stuff happens on a baseball diamond. But it got me thinking that such characterizations happen all the time, especially in the hyper-competitive media atmosphere in New York, and especially with big figures like Derek Jeter.

Because let’s not kid ourselves: while a “desperate Jeter” storyline would be baloney, so too have been the 15 years of “Jeter-is-God” storylines we’ve been steadily fed by the media.  Yes, there have been plenty of reasons to praise Jeter, but we’ve long since passed the time when the narrative — Captain Jeter: The Man Who Plays The Game The Right Way — took on a life of its own.

But such a narrative, being a mere construction of the media, is not something that has to last forever. At some point, almost every public figure falls out of favor to some degree. Or, if the figure was viewed negatively in the past, a redemption story comes along that the media finds irresistible. It doesn’t take a scandal or a singular act of heroism or what have you for the winds to shift. Sometimes they shift simply because a couple of influential voices decide that they’re bored with the old narrative and come up with a new one. Indeed, oftentimes the narrative shift is accompanied by later pieces examining why, exactly, the narrative shifted, because it wasn’t at all clear in the first place.

But more often there’s a catalyst. Alex Rodriguez — a subject of a media-approved narrative of his own* — wasn’t talked about the way he is now until he signed that $250 million deal which has come to color everything he says or does. Roger Clemens now has a much longer and sustained track record of being rather un-hinged, but throwing the bat at Mike Piazza changed the way he was talked about overnight, long before we knew much of anything about his personal life. Once the story changes, everything about the figure in question is seen through a particular prism and the narrative takes on a life of its own.

The Captain Jeter: The Man Who Plays The Game The Right Way narrative has lasted a long, long time. Way longer than most of these things do.  As I sit here this morning, ready to leap into the tabloids and blogs and maybe — just maybe — tune into some talk radio, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t someone out there who wants to get ahead of the pack. Who wants to be the first to cast the hit-by-pitch play as a symbol for Jeter’s struggles in 2010 and, more broadly, the Yankees’ struggles down the stretch.

I hope not, because like I said, in my mind this was a funny little play. And because I don’t believe that any given act on a baseball diamond provides a window into a man’s psyche or soul or whatever. 

But I think I may be in the minority in believing such things. And I can’t help but think that the opportunity to say something provocative about Derek Jeter is too tempting for someone to pass up.

UPDATE: The first step in this direction was taken by a blogger — Steve S. at TYU — not columnists or talk radio.

*You know the narrative: “Alex Rodriguez: Self-Centered Prima Donna” It seems that no matter what he does, his actions are cast in such a light whenever he does something newsworthy. If you question this, let us ponder what the story would be this morning if it were A-Rod, and not Jeter, who faked getting hit by that pitch last night. If you need help, just go back to the “I got it” controversy, which in many ways is the same kind of thing Jeter did with the hit-by-pitch.

Game 2 is going to be the poster child for pace of play arguments this winter

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 26:  Zach McAllister #34 of the Cleveland Indians is relieved by manager Terry Francona during the fifth inning against the Chicago Cubs in Game Two of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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In August, it was reported that Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred would like to implement pitch clocks, like those in use in the minor leagues for the past two seasons, to improve the pace-of-play at the major league level. You can bet that last night’s Game 2 will the lead argument he uses against those who would oppose the move.

The game was moved up an hour in order to get it in before an impending storm. By the time the rain finally started falling the game had been going on for three hours and thirty-three minutes. It should’ve been over before the first drop fell, but in all it lasted four hours and four minutes. It ended in, thankfully, only a light rain. The longest nine-inning game in postseason history happened a mere two weeks ago, when the Dodgers and Nationals played a four hour and thirty two minutes. There thirteen pitchers were used. Last night ten pitchers were used. Either way, the postseason games are dragging on even for those of us who don’t mind devoting four+ hours of our night to baseball. It is likely putting off more casual fans just tuning in for the Fall Classic.

It’s not all just dawdling, however. Yes, the pitchers worked slowly and a lot of pitching changes took place, but strikeouts, walks and the lack of balls in play contribute to longer games as well. We saw this both last night and in Game 1, which was no brisk affair despite each starting pitcher looking sharp and not working terribly slowly. Twenty-four strikeouts on Tuesday night had a lot to do with that. Last night featured 20 strikeouts and thirteen — thirteen! — walks. It’s not just that the games are taking forever; the very thing causing them to drag feature baseball’s least-kinetic forms of excitement.

But no matter what the cause for the slower play was — and here it was a combination of laboring pitchers, the lack of balls in play and, of course, the longer commercial breaks in the World Series — Manfred is likely to hold Game 2 up as Exhibit A in his efforts to push through some rules changes to improve game pace and game time. So far, the centerpiece of those efforts is the pitch clock, which has proven to be successful and pretty non-controversial in the minor leagues. It would not surprise me one bit if, at this year’s Winter Meetings in Washington, a rule change in that regard is widely discussed.

Kyle Schwarber is the feel-good story of the 2016 postseason

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 26:  Kyle Schwarber #12 of the Chicago Cubs reacts after hitting an RBI single to score Ben Zobrist #18 (not pictured) during the fifth inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Two of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Most baseball fans and even the Cubs had resigned themselves to most likely not seeing Kyle Schwarber in game action until spring training next year after he suffered a gruesome knee injury in a collision with teammate Dexter Fowler back in early April. Schwarber suffered a fully-torn ACL and LCL in his left leg.

To the surprise of everyone, including manager Joe Maddon, Schwarber was cleared by doctors to play if the Cubs wanted to put him on the World Series roster. So they did. And, boy, are they glad they did it. In preparation, Schwarber saw over 1,000 pitches from machines and pitchers in the Arizona Fall League.

Schwarber essentially crammed for the final exam and unlike most students who do it, it has panned out well thus far. No one was expecting him to look outstanding against Indians ace Corey Kluber in Game 1, but in his first at-bat — his first in the majors since suffering the injury in April — Schwarber worked a 3-1 count before eventually being retired on strikes. Schwarber came back up in the fourth and drilled a Kluber sinker to right field for a two-out double.

In the seventh inning, facing one of the American League’s two scariest left-handed relievers in Andrew Miller, Schwarber worked a full count before drawing a walk. During the regular season, Miller walked exactly one lefty batter. Schwarber made it two. Schwarber would face Miller again in the eighth, going ahead 2-1 before ultimately striking out. He finished 1-for-3 with a walk and a double in the Cubs’ 6-0 loss. Considering the circumstances, that’s amazing.

Schwarber continued his great approach in Game 2 in what turned out to be a 5-1 victory. He struck out against Trevor Bauer in the first inning, but returned to the batter’s box in the third inning and singled up the middle to knock in the Cubs’ second run. Schwarber made it 3-0 in the fifth when he singled up the middle again, this time off of Bryan Shaw, to make it 3-0. Facing Danny Salazar in the sixth, Schwarber drew a four-pitch walk to put runners on first and second base with two outs. Finally, he struck out against Dan Otero in his eighth-inning at-bat, finishing the evening 2-for-4 with a pair of RBI singles and a walk.

But now, as the Cubs return to Chicago for World Series Games 3, 4, and 5 at Wrigley Field, they have to contest with National League rules, a.k.a. no DH. Will Maddon risk Schwarber’s subpar defense to put his dangerous bat in the lineup? Even if Schwarber is not put in the starting lineup, he can at least serve as a dangerous bat off the bench late in the game when the Indians send out their trio of relievers in Shaw, Miller, and closer Cody Allen. At any rate, what Schwarber has done already in the first two games of the World Series is mighty impressive.