Commentary

The natural order of Derek Jeter

His meaning to Major League Baseball is suddenly front, center and open for debate

Originally Published: July 13, 2011
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

For a few days last week -- sometime between the arrivals of the overexaggerated news of a possible end to NFL lockout and the over-inspirational win by the U.S. women's soccer team against Brazil in the World Cup -- Derek Jeter found space.

Hit No. 3,000. A home run. In Yankee Stadium. On a day he went 5-for-5. On a day when the Yankees won because his last hit, a single, gave them the go-ahead and eventual winning run.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
AP Photo/Bill KostrounDerek Jeter is a man of the people, or so it seems to those of us who don't know him.

All in a day of the life.

Since then, the accolades and testimonials have continued his reign, while the questions continue to arise as to whether Jeter should have attended the All-Star Game. (He opted out, claiming fatigue, a decision that reportedly did not please Major League Baseball.) And so the Tao of Derek Jeter is being put on full display. If not challenged.

His meaning to baseball is found in that subtle difference, or gray area, between impact and influence. It's that fine line between an athlete being the reason others do what he or she does and wanting to be who he or she is. It's that middle passage between unconditional affinity and ultimate respect. The purgatory between loving someone and searching for what's not to love. Jeter makes it impossible to collect reasons not to venerate him.

His life, it seems, has been like this since day one. Since we all first met in 1995, 17 seasons ago. He has lived a baseball existence somewhere between fortune shining a special light on him and God's hand resting on his shoulder just a little bit longer than it does on the rest of us.

Still, we always seem to look him over and eventually move on in our search for that "One" to carry us, to rescue us, to use as an example. Tiger Woods. Michael Jordan. Wayne Gretzky. Muhammad Ali. Brady/Manning/Favre. David Beckham. LeBron James.

Jeter makes us pass him by by being so … him. Subtle. Humble. Which is an extraordinary gift in this asterisked, positive-drug-test-resulting, government-involved, lockout-obsessed, Twitter-fascinated era of calculated public displays for attention, reality shows and Drew Rosenhaus-orchestrated media junkets.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIFor 17 seasons, we've watched Jeter's extraordinary gifts without really understanding them.

Yet he has found the way to relevance. A way to be flawless without being sanctimonious. Ethical. Without ever seeming to want to draw attention to self. Jeter's found a way to transcend at a time when transcendence has lost its meaning.

A recent column in USA Today raised the possibility that Jeter is not the greatest Yankee of all, asking where he should be ranked in Yankees (and baseball) lore. A Washington Post blogger suggested that, in addition to being great, Jeter is simply the luckiest man on the face of the earth. New York University associate professor of sports management, Wayne McDonnell, in that USA Today piece, claimed that Jeter should not even be on the Yankees' Mount Rushmore, that he is not one of the four greatest to ever wear the pinstripes.

The athletes we constantly worship are the anti-Jeter. Not that they are against him; they just aren't him. They don't have his earnestness, don't have the buoyancy, the wherewithal, fortitude or commitment to do what he has done and carry it the way he has carried it.

Maybe it's that they don't have his pride. Outwardly in what they do, internally in who they are.

Jeter's meaning, if we are being honest, goes beyond being referred to as a man of character or an "ambassador … face of [the] sport" or one who is always "representing the game in an awesome way" (as the Brewers' Ryan Braun and the White Sox's Paul Konerko, respectively, said recently about Jeter) or one who plays the game the way it's supposed to be played. He's never been a cliché, even when clichés sometimes provide the most accurate description.

The Meaning of Jeter is in the lines between those words. It can't be seen but is not invisible; it can't be heard but is far from silent.

[+] EnlargeChristian Lopez and Derek Jeter
AP Photo/Kathy KmonicekBecause Jeter is who he is, Christian Lopez, left, apparently never gave a second thought to giving up the 3,000th-hit ball.

Earl Kress, the creator of the comics' Yogi Bear, once wrote this about what he learned from the character he created: "Meeting one of your heroes is always dangerous because you tend to start out with this idealized version of them in your head. It's very easy to become disillusioned and disappointed as you become more familiar."

So here's the "Meaning of … " put in perspective: When Christian Lopez met Jeter and returned the home run ball that was DJ3K's 3,000th hit, Lopez surely felt -- as all of us do -- that he knew Jeter. Knew him for who he is, not just for what he has done on the field. Knew it was the right thing to do because it was the right person for whom to do it. Knew there was very little chance of disillusionment or disappointment.

As much as the media have been applauding Lopez for his gesture of generosity, as much as we're making him out to be the wish-there-were-more-like-him-in-the-world person of the moment, the quality of the recipient of that gesture is the important factor. And once again, it's being missed.

Lopez didn't return the ball simply because of who he is. He returned it because of who the person is -- the person, not necessarily the player -- who hit it.

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.

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