Joe Posnanski, Derek Jeter and the search for meaning when there really is none

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I make no secret of my love of Joe Posnanski’s work. In my view, he’s the best sportswriter going today, bar none. And his column on the Derek Jeter business yesterday was his usual fun, insightful and illuminating work. Some decent analysis of the history of gamesmanship in baseball, talk about the culture of the game and other good stuff.

That is, until towards the end, when he took a turn I wouldn’t have expected him to take:

I don’t think what Jeter did was wrong, not at all, not in baseball
terms. So what was my reaction? Well, I think what Jeter did was kind
of… sad. Has he become so impotent as a hitter — do you realize the guy
now has an 86 OPS+?
— that now he’s willing to hop around and have trainers look at his
forearm when the ball clearly did not hit him? That’s what Derek Jeter
has become? And then afterward, he’s sheepishly defending the move by
saying it’s his job to get on base, well, is that what’s behind the
Derek Jeter aura? Is that what he has stood for all these years?

I just find this really wrongheaded on Joe’s part, because it’s based on the assumption that Jeter wouldn’t have tried to do this kind of thing before now. Which, in light of everything he wrote above about the culture of the game, just doesn’t add up to me. It also seems off because I’ve never seen Posnanski as one of those guys who ascribes that “aura,” as he puts it, to Jeter. To the contrary, he’s always been pretty clear-eyed about the guy, rightfully acknowledging him as one of the best ever, but never going crazy with the “Jeter is a Man Apart” kind of thing so many others have fallen for. We all whiff sometimes, and I think Posnanski whiffed here.

And the source of the whiff, I think — and not just by Posnanski, but by a lot of people on this story — is the reach being made in order to fit the hit-by-pitch thing into a greater narrative.

I’ve really been fixated on that this week by the way — the need to
make what happens on the baseball field fit into a larger story. We saw
it, I think, with Jon Paul Morosi’s awards choices. I think we’re seeing it here too. In this case, the narrative-creation is borne of a need to square the notion of The Great Derek Jeter (a narrative created and fostered by the media for years that exceeds merely admiring his Hall of Fame talents) with the fact that he did something not-so-great on the field (cheating, desperation, gamsemanship, whatever).

Don’t get me wrong: dramatic and personal narrative is an important part of how we all see and understand baseball. All the great baseball books I’ve read involve looking deeper into the personalities and motivations of those who accomplish things on the diamond rather than merely recounting those accomplishments. The hallmark of a great broadcaster like Vin Scully or Ernie Harwell is to tell us a story rather than to merely tell us the score and the count on the batter.

But it’s possible to take such a thing too far. Some things just happen. Some things, rather than defying explanation (and thus begging for one even more) probably don’t even call for explanation in the first place. Or, at the very least, don’t call for one ten minutes after the event.

That’s what I think we have here. Sure, it’s possible that the hit-by-pitch will be important when the final story of Derek Jeter’s career is told. But I kind of doubt it, and as a result I think that a lot of folks, even the most sensible of folks, are having so much trouble as they attempt to fit it in there somewhere.