Derek Jeter, The Last Great Sports Hero
With the All Star Game behind us and the second-half of the MLB season fully underway, Yankees fans and baseball purists now have to accept a reality that we have been dreading for a long time; Derek Jeter is leaving baseball. Shortly after the All-Star game, I got a question emailed to me by my LA-dwelling, Yankees-hating, Dodgers-fan Uncle. The question was simple: I hate the Yankees. But I love Derek Jeter. (Almost) everyone likes and universally respects Derek Jeter. Will we ever see this in sports again?
Jeter is unquestionably one of the last, maybe THE last, great sports heroes left. While any sports player can still create a helluva legacy in their hometown or team's fanbase (performance alone can do that), to be a player who resonates amongst the fanbase of an entire sport (except for a few cynical, contrarian bloggers) is a dying breed. Every player in the sport's world is really two people, the actual person and the media construction of your career and self that is built by columnists, radio hosts, and SportsCenter anchors. While the actual personality and on-field play of Jeter can be debated, it can't be debated the construction of Derek Jeter is the most universally respected player of the modern era in baseball, and perhaps in all of sports. To get to his level of collective admiration will never happen again in today's media world for a number of reasons.
Jeter's early prime (when the narrative of your career is truly built) coincided with the last age of sports heroes in sports media, where writers had more of an interest in building up legends and creating larger-than-life demigods rather than tearing them down. Today's debate-centric sports world is more concerned about finding and magnifying the flaws we find in sports figures, rather than celebrating and waxing poetic on their accomplishments. If Michael Jordan were around today, you better believe his degenerate-gambling, compulsively-competitive, teammates-wife-banging self would be viewed a lot differently than the near-mythic figure he was made to be. Lebron has made 1/10 of the character missteps Jordan did in his career and is one of the most polarizing men in sports history, rather than universally beloved.
Jeter was the biggest player in the biggest media market in the world, lived a high-profile bachelor lifestyle, extending from the sports world into pop culture, yet never had a major tabloid slip or major controversy. The odds of this happening in today's TMZ/Social Media/Camera Phone world? 0%. Ask Johnny Manziel.
Jeter played for the most high-profile sports franchise in North America, the New York Yankees. No franchise will ever be as iconic as the Yankees once were. Even the Yankees aren't what the Yankees were once. Part of this is the decline of baseball and ascension of the NFL, which when it hits its peak in popularity, will really be as "big" of a league as the other major 3 ones combined. The Yankees were the model franchise in America's sport, but America's new sport (football) is built on parity, preventing one franchise from being as perennially dominant as the Yankees historically have been. The closest thing we have seen to that level of sustained success in the NFL is the New England Patriots, and it's been a decade since their last Super Bowl. A franchise being as singularly famous as Jeter's Yankees is highly unlikely. The only thing I can think of that would be close is another unbelievable Lakers run.
Speaking of parity, the infusion of big money into sports has led to increasing parity in all leagues as the talent pool for players has deepened, coaching quality improves, and salary cap rules and league infrastructure tend to favor market and franchise equality over creating great teams (Thanks Obama). The likelihood of a player going on a 4-ring dynastic run in any sport like Derek Jeter did early in his career grows less and less likely every year. And finally..
Derek Jeter is a kid who grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, who as a boy dreamed of being the shortstop and captain of the New York Yankees. Through God-given talent, hard work, and dedication, he grew up to become the shortstop and captain of the New York Yankees. Jeter is the best-case scenario for any young kid who picks up a bat, football, basketball, or hockey stick. The player any aspiring youngling can point to and say "That. That is what I want to have happen to me." He is more than the poster boy for success and baseball tradition; to young players and people of my generation, he was an icon for athletic hope and aspiration.
So no, Uncle from Los Angeles, there will never be "another Derek Jeter." No one will ever get to his level of admiration and respect in today's media, for better or for worse. Me? I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing; recent years have shown us that idol worship in sports can lead to more harm than good, and create actual, real-world consequences (see Paterno, Joe). But for now, I'm just wistful to see the last remnant of a bygone era of Sporting Legends go and want to pay my final #RE2PECTs. Love him or hate him (and either way, you most likely respect him), be happy, because he is leaving behind a legacy you will never, ever, see again.
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