Don’t bench Derek Jeter

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Don’t bench Derek Jeter

Derek Jeter spurs a lot of opinions. In 20 years, we’ve seen everything from full-scale worship to the backlash that inspires. All during this retirement season, sportswriters have clamored to give their take on his legacy and his place in baseball’s annals.

Derek Jeter plays lousy defense. Derek Jeter is too cold and calculating. The constant barrage of media fawning has understandably caused more level-headed writers to sit back poke holes in the Derek Jeter Story. “It seems like it should be enough, the reality of Derek Jeter,” SBNation’s Howard Megdal writes. “So yes, it irritates the rest of us that Derek Jeter can’t simply be extolled for all the things he is, but also has to be celebrated for all the things he pretty clearly isn’t.”

I’m not surprised when I come across a headline like this: “The indisputable selfishness of Derek Jeter.” Megdal makes the completely legitimate argument that Jeter and his .261 batting average aren’t doing the New York Yankees any favor by remaining an everyday No. 2 hitter. From a pure baseball standpoint, he’s not wrong: If this were any other player, he would likely be batting much lower in the lineup and much less frequently.

But this isn’t any other player, and this isn’t any other retirement tour. For months now we’ve debated who can succeed Jeter as the Face of Baseball, which is at least partly inspiring the recent surge in people questioning the state of the game. With this introspection comes the inclination to chip away at the golden-boy image of him that we’ve built up in our heads, itself a fable based on what we think he should be.

But if you accept that fans have instilled Jeter with a greater meaning than warranted, you can’t be surprised when they’re simply not willing to let him go. People everywhere are flocking to catch one last glimpse of him, and paying a pretty penny to do so. Can you imagine the rioting that would take place if they came to the stadium only to find him sitting on the bench?

This isn’t about rational baseball decisions. This is purely sentimental - and that’s okay. Sports in general and baseball especially have always called on their past when looking to the future. At the end of the day, fans might know Jeter’s defense is statistically below-average, but they’ll remember the moments. At this point, fans can’t be faulted if they’d sacrifice one postseason for one great farewell tour. Ten years from now, Yankees fans won’t think twice about the fact that their team missed the playoffs last year, but they’ll always remember Mariano Rivera’s send-off.

ESPN’s Ian O’Connor writes that Jeter is doing the right thing by staying where he is, because “Jeter’s greatest weapon as a major leaguer has always been his unbending belief in himself.” That may be true, but Jeter has also always known how to navigate baseball’s politics. While I sympathize with Megdal’s expectation that Jeter make things easier on Joe Girardi and bat lower or sit on the bench for the good of the team, benching Jeter would cause much more uproar. (Recall the firestorm when Joe Torre dropped Alex Rodriguez to eighth in the playoffs.)

You always hear older fans saying, “You should’ve seen him play,” when recalling the good ol’ days of Aaron and Mays. Derek Jeter’s not selfish for giving fans an opportunity to do just that. If the ’40s were DiMaggio and the ’50s were Mantle, this latest era was Derek Jeter’s. Given our recent proclivity for ’90s nostalgia, don’t be surprised when we have a hard time letting go. It’s not rational; it’s baseball.

by Kavitha A. Davidson Bloomberg View sports columnist

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