The Derek Jeter Conundrum

Posted on September 12, 2011

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By Geoff Ratliff and Jeremy Sickel

When Derek Jeter recently joined the 3,000 hit club, becoming the first Yankee player ever to do so, it reignited the debate about his status among Yankee greats and his overall place in baseball history. This is a fair discussion, because when Jeter began his career with a modest late season call-up during the 1995 season, nobody could have imagined what his career would become today. In retrospect, the fact that Jeter has been able to ascend near the top of the pantheon of greats is downright awe-inspiring. Joining the ranks of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle and Berra seems more like a fairy tale than reality. While this conversation is great for baseball purists, to discuss Jeter’s prominence solely in the context of sports is missing the point.

Jeter is a pop culture icon, and in the realm of other pro athletes in the four major North American sports, he really has no peer in that category other than Tom Brady. Jeter, like Brady, is what I like to call the Ultimate Alpha Male (UAM). He’s good looking, charming, athletic, accomplished, and from what we can tell, intelligent and funny. Not since JFK, Jr. was alive has a man seemed so comfortable in his own skin. In a time in which anyone can seemingly master any one of these traits and still make a damn good life for themselves, Jeter is the rare breed who doesn’t have to overcompensate for an obvious deficiency in any of these qualities. This embodies the essence of what makes an UAM. What’s interesting about Jeter, however, is that he doesn’t openly embrace his pop culture status, which makes one wonder if that affects the way he is viewed as both a baseball star, and a pop culture God, particularly amongst younger followers?

Today’s generation of baseball fans simply see Jeter’s on-field accomplishments as a nice compilation of numbers and World Series titles, but a majority of those thirty and under have little to no appreciation of how he got there. Jeter has accumulated his fair share of highlight reel plays over the years, but he’s turned into somewhat of a grinder over the past couple of seasons, far removed from the graceful player he once was. This, along with his unparalleled humility with respect to the game has undoubtedly caused some to lose appreciation for what he really means to the game of baseball.

Looking back at guys like DiMaggio and Joe Namath, and even Brady, to stick with a contemporary comparison, they all seemed to embrace their roles as UAMs and even sex symbols. While Jeter does enjoy the spoils of his celebrity to a certain degree – he has put together perhaps the greatest portfolio of starlets in modern history – he also seems to purposefully shy away from his playboy status, as demonstrated by his recent break up with Minka Kelly. What was well on it’s way to being the baseball version of Brady and Gisselle, disintegrated quickly, reportedly because Jeter was uncomfortable with Kelly’s rising fame. Instead of embracing the position that every man would love to be in, Jeter rejects it, which begs the question: do some people not respect Jeter more because he’s not the unforgiving lady’s man that we want him to be?

I’m inclined to say yes. Jeter has presumably done everything right at every point in his career but I can’t help but look at the differences between the way he is viewed, versus Tom Brady, and think that his failure to either go all-in as a playboy or marry one of these starlets and start a family has left him in pop culture purgatory. Men don’t totally respect him and women don’t completely adore him. It’s unlikely that Jeter cares about any of this but it certainly says a lot about how we view our stars.

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