Rare Earth Metal

The sports world, television, and the Internet will be even more abuzz today as Derek Jeter steps off the field at the new Yankee Stadium one last time. There will be plenty of articles, segments, and tweets lauding Jeter’s style, jeering at his sometimes subpar on field performance, or waxing nostalgic about his immortal moves like “The Dive” and “The Flip” and “Mr November.” Instead, therefore, I’ll explore another, more subtle angle: Derek Jeter as the master class example in celebrity image construction and management.

If asked to describe Jeter with single words, I’d say the following: consistent; understated; loyal; durable; reserved; private; thoughtful; discreet; political; under control; cool under pressure; prepared; and a leader by example.

Playing in the klieg lights of New York City amplified Jeter’s athletic talents, perhaps beyond what should have been. This is a common knock dished out by Jeter haters, but playing in a high-pressure environment adds a degree of difficulty most people cannot truly understand. He then fell into a dynasty, a legendary head coach, world titles, and money. He was made by the time he was 25.

Relatively speaking, based on how Jeter measures success, it was all downhill after that fateful Game 7 loss to Arizona in 2001. His team made it to the playoffs and a few World Series (winning once in 2009), but despite all his efforts, the magic of 1996-2001 was never to be replicated, despite his day in and day out attempts to do so.

Anyone who truly understands baseball and followed this timeline already knows how frustrating the ownership tussles and the media pressure could have made Jeter feel. I’ve never seen him lose his cool, his optimism, his competitiveness, or his focus. Sure, one can argue he’s well paid and a city playboy, but he already had fame and wealth by 2001 — he was driven by something deeper: baseball immortality. The end of his career was marked by personal records and achievements, but over a 13-year period, he only got to truly celebrate with his team once.

During this time, as well, Jeter became a celebrity, a star endorsement, and some might say corporate spokesperson. It’s easy to snicker at, and surely baseball misses gritty, pure player characters like Pete Rose and Ricky Henderson. Jeter became so polished, he represented his team worldwide (a multibillion dollar corporation), endorsed the most premium consumer products (Nike, Gatorade, etc), and somehow managed to mostly stay out of the world of Page Six tabloids.

And that’s mostly what I’ll remember about Jeter. The purely selfless plays, the extreme situational awareness, the high pressure performance, and his ability to be an authentic public face in a time when it’s hard to find in people just one quality, let alone the many that Jeter embodies. On top of this, his self-discipline to keep his private life private and off the press is remarkable. Imagine how many people stalked him, or tried to dig dirt, or tried to plant stories. He never let it get there. He understood that he represented an organization that is bigger than him, and that an investment in layers of security and discretion would both pay off and ask as insurance in a career that saw the creation of social media and the explosion of mobile devices.

It’s the end of an era, but I am not worried because I know I will see Jeter again soon. He’s too ambitious to just a live a normal life. He has tasted success but it is not yet time to smell the roses. Tonight will be his last game as a player, but he stopped being a great player a few years ago. No matter, he earned the right to go out on his terms, and in the process, became something more interesting, a person who could own a baseball franchise, who could become part of the Yankee brass, who could run for elected office, who could finally get married and have kids. Whatever way it goes, one thing is for certain — like everything he has done before, it will undoubtedly be done with one of today’s rarest earth metals: class.