I’ve had several conversations with non-baseball obsessives lately about Derek Jeter. Friends. Family. Sports radio hosts who talk about football 97% of the time and are desperate to talk about anything — anything! — besides the NFL labor thing. Those conversations always come back to the same place: Where does Derek Jeter rate all-time?
At that point I usually don’t actually rate him, but I talk about how it’s difficult to talk about Derek Jeter right now. Because for years he was so overhyped and then lately all of his greatness has been forgotten by many who are rushing to bury him due to his decline. And then it gets complicated again when he approaches the 3000-hit plateau and we lerch back toward deification. This kind of deification, by Ian O’Connor of ESPN New York:
Jeter didn’t merely become the 28th major leaguer and first Yankee to reach 3,000 hits, and the only man not named Wade Boggs to do so with a homer; he turned the afternoon into a this-is-your-life review of his greatness, claiming five hits and the winning RBI against the Tampa Bay Rays and choking the life out of the non-stop talk of his imminent demise.
One last time, with feeling, Jeter was No. 2 in your program and No. 1 in your heart.
And it just goes on and on like that.
This is what I’m talking about when I say that Jeter gets overhyped. An educated sports observer who watches tons of games and should be expected to have at least an ounce of perspective about Jeter’s place in the universe allows himself — and the readers who trust his judgment — to launch into the starry-eyed stratosphere over hit number 3,000. A great accomplishment, sure, but not one that needs or justifies this kind of prose.
Prose that will soon be forgotten, I’m guessing, when Jeter’s demise as an elite player comes back to the forefront. My friend Repoz from the Baseball Think Factory website reminded us over the weekend that Jeter’s chances of choking the life out of that kind of talk can’t be any better than Mickey Mantle’s. The same Mickey Mantle, Repoz noted on his Facebook page, who went 5 for 5 — the first 5 for 5 game of his career — on May 30, 1968, which led to a lot of people talking about Mantle being back. After the 5 for 5 Mantle went 2 for his next 24 and retired nine months later saying, “I just can’t hit anymore.”
I’m not saying that Jeter will do the same. And I am certain that we will all one day agree that Jeter was one of the best ever, because it happens to be true. But he’s a ballplayer. No different in kind than any other ballplayer, and no more immune to the effects of time and vagaries of fortune, both good and bad, than anyone else. To write about his game on Saturday as if that wasn’t what was happening — that he has somehow slayed a dragon and discovered a fountain of youth, and boy aren’t we blessed to have witnessed it — is a bit much for me. And ultimately does us all a disservice as we try to assess the true gravity of Derek Jeter the ballplayer and hit number 3,000 the accomplishment.