Derek Jeter — the engine of the New York Yankees dynasty I loved as a suburban Jersey kid from the time I was in third grade until he retired when I was 28 and getting ready for my first child to be born; who won five World Series championships without breaking a sweat; who slashed the ball to right field, the opposite way for a righty, so consistently that he seemed like a robot; who spoke only in strings of emotionless baseball cliches to the point where the robot theory actually seemed plausible; who tried to keep his private life private but ended up in the tabloids over and over while dating celebrities like Mariah Carey and Jessica Alba; who is now inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame after receiving 99.7% of the sportswriters’ votes — is the only baseball player to have ever hosted Saturday Night Live.
Why do I bring this up instead of opening with some of his more notable achievements?
Like, I could tell you about the time he hit a home run after midnight on November 1, 2001, the first batter to come to the plate in the month of November in Major League history because the season had been paused for a week in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The game had started on Halloween, but things were tight and tense and they went into extra innings. The clock struck midnight as Jeter prepared the bat; the calendar flipped. Jeter’s hit won Game 4 of the World Series instantly, a walkoff home run in the bottom of the last inning. The stadium — the city, the tri-state area — shook with cathartic joy as Jeter rounded the bases. The newspapers called him Mr. November after that. I get chills thinking about it, my 15-year-old self nervously eating leftover Halloween candy on the couch before shouting unintelligible noises at the television.
Or I could open with The Flip, which happened just a few games before Mr. November. You can say “The Flip” to any Yankees fan and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. With the season hanging in the balance, Jeter made a defensive play so shocking in its situational awareness and balletic contortion it will never be equalled. Even if you don’t know anything about baseball, just watch him fly into the picture in this clip from out of nowhere and listen to the gobsmacked announcer and you’ll understand:
Maybe I should have started with Jeter’s final at-bat at Yankee Stadium in 2014, a 40-year-old now with diminished skill and speed, a shell of his former self but still hanging on. Gamed tied at 5, bottom of the ninth, runner on second, one out. Jeter, a Catholic, makes the sign of the cross before he comes to the plate. First pitch: he lines a single to right field (always right field). An obscure journeyman named Antoan Richardson sprints home from second, just ahead of the throw. Game over, Yankees win. Fairytale career over with a fairytale ending.
There are another dozen moments like these. But I can’t stop thinking about Derek Jeter walking out to host SNL to shrieks and rapturous applause.
Here’s why: The idea of a baseball player hosting SNL is impossible today. The sport has never been more removed from the cultural zeitgeist. If you don’t follow baseball closely, you probably can’t name more than a couple of current players, and you wouldn’t be able to pick their faces out of a lineup. But you know who Derek Jeter is. Jeter transcended sports. He was the last baseball icon.
The trick with icons is that it’s hard to love them. Icons keep you at an arm’s length with their greatness, inaccessible and incomprehensible to mere mortals like you and me. I’d say I admired or enjoyed watching athletes like Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, and Jeter, but I wouldn’t use the word “love.” Success seemed too easy for Jeter, preordained for him from birth. Throw in his obscene handsomeness and all you could do was shake your head at how someone could win the $100 billion genetic PowerBall like that.
My favorite Yankee of the early 2000s Jeter era was Clay Bellinger, who had played in the minors for 10 full years before cracking a Major League roster. He was a mediocre, underdog utilityman and extremely easy to root for. (Bellinger’s son, Cody, on the other hand, is a charming, Jeteresque baseball prodigy for the Dodgers and therefore far less likable than his old man.) Jeter going into the Hall of Fame elicits no reaction from me, the biggest Yankees fan you’ve ever read on Grotto.
There are other athletes I say I love all the time — either superstars (Philadelphia 76er Joel Embiid) or role players (Dallas Maverick Boban Marjanovic) who win me over with their engaging public personalities and athletic skill. But the problem is I don’t actually know any of these people. They could be bad tippers or disrespectful neighbors or worse. Or not! There’s just no way to know for sure from such a distance. I have no more basis to love these players than I have to shrug in apathy toward Jeter, and I have to remind myself that fandom that moves from interest and fun into hero worship is pure fantasy, utterly lacking all the ingredients that go into real, mutual human relationships.
So I’ll celebrate Derek Jeter’s induction into the Hall of Fame, but not by watching the enshrinement ceremony or googling for details about his private life. I’ll celebrate by thanking him for the opportunity to remember that my sports fandom could use a lot more detachment.
Cheers to you, baseball robot — you’ve helped me remember that while sports are a fun diversion, the relationships worth investing in are those with the people I actually share my life with.