That goddamned Gatorade commercial was the final straw.
I tried my best all summer to ignore the Derek Jeter farewell fellatio-fest, but keeping this whole barf-inducing RE2PECTacle at bay has been all but impossible. Nearly every team the New York Yankees played this season paid grandiose homage to their opponents’ retiring captain; at one agonizingly awkward pregame ceremony after another, Jeter has left piled high with gifts like personalized kayaks, personalized paddle boards, personalized guitars, personalized golf clubs and cowboy boots.
Teams have presented him with Colorado ski trips and Italian vacations, sacrificial virgins with his uniform number tattooed in Yankee blue on their lower backs and many thousands of dollars in donations to Jeter’s Turn 2 Foundation. (OK, so I made up the virgins thing; then again, if the Yankees had played the Miami Marlins this year, I wouldn’t have put it past Jeffrey Loria to sign off on something like that.)
The sports media – Keith Olbermann notwithstanding – have offered up gifts of their own, in the form of endless, fawning features about Jeter’s brilliant career, his upstanding character and of course his intrinsic ability to “play the game the right way.” Fox’s TV coverage of this summer’s All-Star Game was even more blatantly worshipful of Jeter than it was of his retiring teammate Mariano Rivera during 2013’s Midsummer Classic; listening to Joe Buck gush over the Yankee captain, one couldn’t help but feel immense pity for whomever was going to have to clean the underside of the announcer’s desk afterwards.
And then there was the “controversy” over Cardinals hurler Adam Wainwright’s admission that he’d intentionally thrown Jeter “a couple of pipe shots” down the center of the plate; though meant as a respectful (sorry, RE2PECTful) gesture, it still caused considerable huffing and puffing from the “play the game right way” crowd. Derek Jeter should be offended by such an offering, they seethed. Derek Jeter doesn’t need pipe shots! Derek Jeter can skin a 92 MPH fastball with his bare hands!
The deification of the future Hall of Famer has only ratcheted up in intensity and absurdity as the season has worn on, even while he’s looked increasingly mortal at the plate. (As of this writing, he’s put up a supremely wretched slash line of .230/.270/.293 since Wainwright grooved him one.) But it reached toxic proportions last week, when Gatorade unveiled their “Made in New York” commercial.
Hailed as a major media event by everyone from Newsweek to ESPN, the ad shows Jeter deciding – for apparently the first time in his 20 seasons with the Yankees – to walk the streets of the Bronx on his way to the ballpark. It’s reminiscent of that Fiat ad from a few years back, where Jennifer Lopez drove a 500 Cabrio from Manhattan to her old ‘hood, only this one’s even sillier, and shot in sumptuous black and white that’s supposed to convey a “classic” gravitas. Children beam, young women gasp, old women weep and working stiffs shout his name as Jeter glides uncomfortably through their midst to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” It’s like the Second Coming of Christ as imagined by GQ.
There’s no denying that Jeter was a great player in his prime; I don’t doubt that Yankees fans love him, and I’m certainly not disputing his Hall of Fame qualifications. But players with more impressive careers than his (and there have been quite a few, despite whatever “We’ll not see his likes again!” nonsense Yankees broadcaster Suzyn Waldman might be braying) have essayed their final seasons amid only a fraction of the hype surrounding Jeter’s retirement.
Paul Molitor, a first-ballot HOF inductee with similar numbers, waited until several months after the 1998 season to announce that he wasn’t coming back. There wasn’t a ceremonial “farewell tour” for Reggie Jackson, arguably the biggest star (and ego) of his era, even though he announced before the 1987 season began that it would be his last. Hank Aaron, struggling horribly at the plate during the last year of his brilliant career, refused commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s entreaties for him to play in the 1976 All-Star Game, choosing instead to watch the game from the stands.
Sure, we’re living in different, more media-inundated times. But White Sox captain Paul Konerko – a borderline Hall of Fame candidate at best, but a feared slugger and a guy who’s played more games on Chicago’s South Side than anyone not named Luke Appling – is also about to retire at season’s end, but his final year as a player has been primarily devoid of fanfare. It’s also worth noting that Konerko, who returned this year with the understanding that his primary role would be to mentor the team’s young players, has appeared in just a little more than half of his team’s games in 2014; the Yankees, on the other hand, decided before the season even began to live or die with the 40-year-old Jeter starting at shortstop, a tack which may have actually cost them a shot at the postseason.
So why all the hype surrounding Jeter’s retirement? Marketing, of course. Derek Jeter may not have been the best baseball player of his era, but he has certainly been the most marketable, hence all the recent articles wondering who will be “the new face of baseball” once Jeter packs it in. Sure, there’s Mike Trout, but he’s about as charismatic as one of the Subway sandwiches he shills. The initial excitement surrounding Bryce Harper has been dissipated somewhat by his arrogance and injuries. Yasiel Puig might be the most exciting player in the game right now, but his tendency to showboat (and make major mental mistakes) has made him more controversial than marketable.
Jeter, by contrast, is an advertising agency’s wet dream. He’s a “gamer” with five World Series rings. He’s played his entire career for the same team – thus marking him as something of a throwback to a more feel-good era of baseball, regardless of how well he’s been compensated for sticking around – a team which just happens to be the world’s most famous baseball franchise. He’s respected (sorry, RE2PECTed) by teammates and opponents alike; he’s never committed any image-besmirching missteps in his personal life (unless you count dating Mariah Carey); and best of all, he’s never been linked to any performance enhancing drugs.
Along with wanting to squeeze every last possible dollar out of his image while he’s still in uniform, I suspect that this relentless send-off for Jeter is at least partly motivated by Major League Baseball’s desire to absolve itself of the steroids mess that occurred under the selectively watchful eye of commissioner Bud Selig, who also happens to be retiring at the end of this season.
The underlying message of Jeter’s farewell tour (which is helpfully perpetuated by the same media that willfully played dumb for years while PEDs were running rampant) seems to be that if we all just prostrate ourselves before St. Jeter, who played the game clean and played the game right, then we will be touched by the true spirit of baseball and can finally put Barry Bonds’ HGH-inflated cap size, Manny Ramirez’s ovary pills and just about everything A-Rod behind us. If we touch the hem of his pinstripes, only then will we be truly healed.
On Sunday, September 28, Derek Jeter will play his last regular-season game. The site will be Fenway Park, and Boston fans will no doubt cheer and tip their hats to the Yankee captain out of, well, RE2PECT for his role in all of those thunderous Yankees-Red Sox clashes from the past 20 years. And that’s where, hopefully, Derek Jeter’s career will end – because if the Yankees somehow manage to make the playoffs, the ensuing onslaught of breathless “Jeter’s last postseason” puffery is gonna make a lot of people want to watch football instead.
Dan Epstein’s latest book, Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76, is now out via Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. He’s on Twitter at @BigHairPlasGras