The Jeter Narrative

On Saturday Derek Jeter had one of the most memorable games of his memorable career. He became the 28th player in baseball history to reach 3,000 hits by hitting a third inning home run that knotted the game at 1-1. By the time the day was over, Jeter had gone for five for five with a game winning hit in the eighth inning. At 37, Jeter has slowed down considerably and is no longer the player either with the glove or the bat that he once was, making days like Saturday even more special, because we all know there won’t be many more of them for the great Yankee shortstop.

The coverage of Jeter’s extraordinary accomplishment has, probably temporarily and not entirely, overshadowed some of the other recent stories about Jeter. Jeter’s 3,000 hit came at a time when some, notably ESPN’s Buster Olney, were criticizing him for his decision not to play in the All Star Game on Tuesday for which he was elected as the American League’s starting shortstop, and others have questioned his value to the team given how well backup shortstop Eduardo Nunez played, and how well the Yankees did, during Jeter’s recent time on the disabled list.

In addition to the inevitable slowing down due to age, the biggest difference between Jeter in 2011 and Jeter in 2010 is that Jeter no longer is able to control the narrative of his media coverage. For most of his career, Jeter handled the media masterfully, avoiding conflict or scandal, always making himself available for a comment but rarely offering an interesting one, and creating an image of himself as a selfless team player. By doing this, Jeter ensured glowing coverage of his activities both on and off the field. While the constant descriptions of Jeter’s commitment to the team, the frequent shots of Jeter cheering whenever a teammate hit a home run and similar coverage may have irritated some, generally this contributed to Jeter’s sterling public image.

This began to change in the 2010-2011 off-season as Jeter lost control of the narrative of his career largely because of his contract negotiations with the Yankees. From a financial angle, Jeter was the clear winner in these negotiations securing a contract that could end up being for as much as $60 million for as many as four years. This was about twice as much money and twice as many years as any other team would have been likely to offer Jeter had he seriously explored other options. Based on what he is doing this year, Jeter is one of the game’s most overpaid players and will likely remain in that category for the duration of his career, but Jeter is hardly the first overpaid player in baseball and certainly not the first veteran the Yankees have overpaid. Nonetheless, during the contract negotiations, the tone of the coverage of Jeter gradually shifted so that, for the first time, journalists felt comfortable suggesting Jeter was demanding too much and overreacting to the suggestion by the Yankees, that there was not much of a market for a 36 year old shortstop coming off a bad year.

The two current negative Jeter stories, his supplanting Nunez upon returning from the DL, and his decision not to play in the All Star Game, demonstrate the inability of Jeter, once one of the game’s most media savvy players, to frame how the media covers him. Under the previous Jeter media framework, the Yankee shortstop would have made a statement like “While I am honored to again be elected to represent the American League as the starting shortstop in the All Star Game, at my age recovering from injuries is more difficult and I can help my team the most by taking a few extra days off. Moreover, there are several great young shortstops in the American League who deserve the honor this year more than me.” In the old days, the media would have reported that as further evidence of Jeter’s selflessness and dignity. Now, even if he were to say something like that, it would not as easily be taken at face value. Similarly, in previous years the Nunez issue would have disappeared as soon as Jeter uttered some platitude about the team winning.

This year, however, Jeter is being treated as a symbol of both the mistakes fans make when voting for the All Star team and the lack of respect players show for fans. The All Star Game is something of a joke with 32 players selected or elected in many different ways, managers trying to both win and get everybody into the game, questionable All Star selections by managers and fans, and even more questionable roster oversights. The game can be fun to watch and probably generates money for MLB and the host city, but it is still difficult to take seriously. In this environment holding up Derek Jeter as part of the problem, reveals more about how Jeter’s image has changed than about Jeter himself.

Jeter is, of course, largely responsible for both creating the narrative that dominated coverage of him during most of his career, and losing that narrative in the last nine months or so. The problem Jeter faces is that as his skills continue to decline and the milestones stop coming it will be harder to get back control of the narrative while he is still playing. There will be more stories about whether or not he should be the starting shortstop and leadoff hitter and his bloated contract in the next few years. For Jeter, the only way to win back control of the narrative may be retiring, but that is always a tough decision for a great player.