Today in Boston, New York Yankees Captain Derek Jeter will play in his final game in Yankee pinstripes. It not only signals the end to a tremendously memorable career. It may also signal the end of a specific type of person: the true American sports idol.
To be a true sports idol you have to have an extremely rare combination of charisma, likeability, talent, attractiveness, leadership and luck. You cannot be flashy or showy. You have to do a good job of building a personal brand, while keeping the media and fans at an arm’s length so they cannot tarnish that brand. Fans must love you, the media must respect you, and the police blotter cannot know your name.
Derek Jeter has all of these qualities. He is the captain of the most iconic sports franchise in the world. He has a smile that would melt Mussolini’s heart. He dates the most beautiful women in the world as if they are nothing to him but ice cream flavors in the universe’s greatest Baskin Robbins.
He is also generous to fans. The media love him. (Legendary sports columnist Rick Reilly devoted one of his final columns for ESPN.com to his apparent man-crush on Jeter.) He is one of the most recognizable faces in a city where celebrity is pressure-cooking and the paparazzi, armed with camera and microphones, fights a guerrilla war every day against these defenseless celebrities. Yet Jeter keeps the TMZ army at bay, somehow wooing the most gorgeous and elegant women in the world and yet doing so mostly in privacy. Few people could go through a life such as this unscathed, yet Jeter has done so admirably.
I would argue that he, currently, is the only true sports idol in American professional sports. Sure you could argue Tom Brady, who is incredibly striking, married to a supermodel and the very likeable quarterback of the very revered New England Patriots. There’s Peyton Manning (to whom this author once wrote a column professing his man-crush). Manning has an unmatched work ethic, lasting talent, an extremely engaging personality that has landed him on Saturday Night Live and a whole lot of Papa Johns commercials as well as a great ability to separate his personal and professional life.
Tony Romo is the handsome quarterback of America’s team, the Dallas Cowboys. Yet he has the pronounced ability of fumbling footballs and Jessica Simpsons in equal measure. Tim Tebow had an entire nation tebowing to him, with the exception of the general managers of every NFL team. The last two Heisman Trophy winners have both spent at least one night in a jailhouse.
Andy Roddick was once the face of American men’s tennis and has supermodel Brooklyn Decker to come home to every night, but he was never fully able to dominate his sport. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer may both be classified as true sports icons, but not in America.
Kobe Bryant has long been the face of the NBA, with his charismatic smile, strong work ethic, and unmatched talent. Yet there was that incident in Vail, Colorado. Whether or not, that incident was portrayed fairly in the media is irrelevant. It’s hard to hide when you are a sports icon, especially from Google.
One bad night and a big fight with his wife, golden boy Tiger Woods fell down a rabbit-hole which revealed a private life oozing with tawdriness, a rabbit hole which he still has been unable to climb out of.
Because every person has a cellphone camera, a bonehead tweet is nothing more than a few a too many cocktails and a few finger swipes away and 24-hour news and sports networks need to find something to talk about to fill that time, sports icons now walk a well-littered minefield.
TMZ is now the most important acronym in sports, save for ESPN. Meanwhile, in the past few weeks, ESPN’s legal analysts have been logging more airtime than its sports analysts. When Roger Cossack gets more face time on the network than Chris Berman, we know there is a problem.
Growing up, I worshiped Kirby Puckett. The pudgy, loveable, firecracker outfielder of the Minnesota Twins led the franchise to two World Series championships (1987 and 1991) and won my heart in the process. Following his retirement, a series of very negative and unusual incidents made it clear that Puckett was not always the man I saw hanging on a poster in my childhood bedroom, or the player I dreamed I was when I gripped a baseball bat in my hands. It was a hard, yet important, lesson for a maturing boy to learn: that the supermen we worship on the field do indeed take off their uniforms and are forced to live their lives. Sometimes, they can be heroic on the field of battle, yet far from that on the field of life. These men are not super-human. They are very human people who are blessed with super-human abilities.
Derek Jeter wore the Yankee pinstripes with class. He had an important legacy to live up to. Ruth, Mantle, DiMaggio and Gehrig all went to work every day wearing that same uniform. Well a monumental task, Jeter found a way to live up to that legacy in a seemingly effortless way. Jeter has placed himself with those legendary Yankees who came before him, and he will hopefully be remembered that way, although Jeter still has, with all sincere hope, a lot of life still to live.
A little over 75 years ago, Lou Gehrig stood, his head bowed in complete admiration, and told the world, “today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” I would imagine Derek Jeter would echo Gehrig’s sentiments.
Yet we were given a lot as well.
Jeter ended his career at Yankee Stadium by hitting a walk off single. It was an appropriate ending to his illustrious career. A sign I saw a fan holding up during that game ties it up beautifully: #2 on the field, #1 in our hearts. Or maybe it is Jeter’s nephew’s gesture that can help sum up Jeter’s career and what he has meant to the game of baseball and to all of the fans of the game.
Derek Jeter, we all doff our caps to you.