NEW YORK — You’re supposed to start these columns with an anecdote relaying a time you talked to Derek Jeter. He played for so long in such a crowded media market and was elected to the Hall of Fame so quickly that so much commemoration of the longstanding New York Yankees captain this week included a personal recollection.
The bar for what Jeter has to do to make an indelible memory for someone else is awfully low. It’s a cliche that Jeter never gave a controversial quote. What differs is the reaction to this stoicism — whether you see him as frustratingly evasive or a public-relations mastermind playing three-dimensional chess with his cordial but cold answers.
I met Jeter just once and it’s not a very good story. At 22, I spent a summer working in the publications department of the league offices that put out commemorative coffee table books. I had an oppositional defiant streak that made me good at the job and an ignorance about the industry that made me bad at it. Because of one or both of those traits I offered to take our list of insubstantial crowdsourced questions to Jeter. He was distracted (understandable) and a Yankees staffer cut me off mid-questioning. Jeter stopped talking and returned to getting dressed. I left not knowing who Jeter would want to go on “The Amazing Race” with or anything about what he was like as a person.
Almost everyone else who’s written about Jeter got to know him better (or at least over more cumulative minutes) but the morals of those anecdotes are often similarly nondescript.
On Wednesday, seven years after our only interaction, in a gilded hotel ballroom with clouds painted on the ceiling and half a dozen heavy chandeliers that each deserved to be a centerpiece, Jeter was funnier than I expected he would be. Not as funny as Larry Walker, who was seemingly there at the Hall of Fame news conference to serve as comic relief and a foil to Jeter’s career (occupational hazard of getting elected alongside a hometown hero), but funnier than I expected.
“I don’t care where they put me, they can put me in the restroom,” he said of his bronze likeness soon to be placed in Cooperstown, to uproarious laughter. Come to think of it, maybe it’s just a low bar.
He was droll, certainly. His media persona is probably best described as “deft.” For example: Is it frustrating, given how much success he enjoyed as a player, what he’s going through as a CEO in Miami with the losing and the empty ballpark?
“No, it’s been a lot of fun down there, losing and the empty ballpark,” Jeter said before pivoting to talk about the opportunity and the need to build trust with Marlins fans.
It’s hard to argue that the questions, let alone the answers, are all that incisive at the news conference the day after the Hall of Fame electees have been announced and already made at least one round of public press, but still Jeter managed a masterclass on sidestepping potential pull quotes.
On how he would sum up what this means to him: “The best way to answer it is I don’t know what to say.”
On how getting elected into the Hall of Fame compares to winning a World Series: “There are some similarities and some differences.”
On his parents, and how they reacted to his election: “I wouldn’t be here without them.”
On which highlights from his career he’ll want to show his daughters someday: “I don't know if there's anything in particular I’ll show them.”
(He did give a notably bad answer to an inquiry about the declining percentage of black baseball players, blaming the younger generation for prioritizing instant gratification over the tedium of building a baseball career.)
On what he would say to the one member of the Baseball Writers Association of America whose ballot kept Jeter from being voted in unanimously: “I focus on the ones that did. ... That’s something that just doesn’t cross my mind.”
I think there is a temptation in writing about Jeter to prove that you saw him play, that you tried to get to the bottom of his larger-than-life legacy even while he was still in the game, that you weren’t suckered by his reputation. Probably that’s why people tell the few stories they have of him doing something as normal as saying hello to a teammate. You know he’s human, and as a fellow human, even his relentless diplomacy is impressive, if poor fodder for future banter.
But the reputation is kind of the whole thing with Jeter. He was elected into the Hall of Fame on the tremendous merit of his baseball ability and the reputation it begat. Being so single-mindedly focused on succeeding as a shortstop and a teammate for the New York Yankees does not necessarily leave room for a whole lot else. Maybe if Jeter wasn’t one of the most talented players to ever wear the storied pinstripes he wouldn’t be a very interesting guy — but isn’t that enough?
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