“The greatest enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” —JFK
As Derek Jeter is poised to make history this weekend, his career is in a very unusual place. On the one hand, he is standing on the cusp of history, poised to become the first Yankee to reach 3,000 hits. On the other hand, he is following up 2010, the worst season of his career, with an even worse year. The Yankees played their best stretch of baseball with him on the DL, leading some to wonder if the team is better off without him. And he remains under contract through at least 2013.
So why release a biography of Jeter now, at such an uncertain crossroads in his career? Writing a biography of Jeter that culminates in the 2009 season—squeezing his dreadful ’10 and his contentious contract negotiations this off-season into the epilogue—is like writing a biography of Julius Caesar that ends on March 14th.
Ian O’Connor’s new book, The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter, is bound to be incomplete. So why did he write it? It seems clear that the primary motive O’Connor had for writing this book was not to bring new light to Jeter’s career, but to enhance the myths already surrounding it. The Captain is, above all else, an exercise in mythmaking.
Let’s get this out of the way: The Captain is not a good book. It is sloppily written and glaringly biased. The research is copious, but distractingly one-sided—full of clubhouse gossip, heavily dependent on a few questionable sources, and conspicuously missing most of the primary figures (like, say, Jeter). Most importantly, there is (outside of the first three chapters that cover his pre-Yankee career) very little information in the book that an attentive Yankee fan would not already know.
The Captain was clearly a labor of love for O’Connor. His investment in the story (he told Joe Posnanski that he wrote the book because Jeter was the player he wanted his son to model himself after) certainly comes through. But this becomes a fault. The book is so clearly written to verify certain assumptions about Jeter that it becomes essentially useless as a primary document.
The new pieces of information that O’Connor does include are not particularly revelatory. It’s not the most thrilling piece of news, for example, that Julian Mock went on a three-mile run before deciding that the Cincinnati Reds would pass on Jeter in the 1992 draft. And while the anecdote about Jeffrey Maier’s trip to Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS is interesting, it probably does not need to go on for twelve pages.
But O’Connor seems almost wary of including new information, lest it clash with the perception we already have of Jeter. Instead we get reminders about things we already know, but have possibly forgotten, like Jeter being named Yankee captain while the team was on the road, his 2003 Visa commercial with George Steinbrenner, or his feud with teammate Chad Curtis. We get broad outlines of each of the Yankees’ championship seasons that include copious details that have little to do with Jeter, such as what Tim McCarver said about Jim Leyritz’s home run in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series or David Wells’ reaction to being traded to Toronto. We get bromides from sources all desperate to present themselves as prescient:
David Cone: “When I saw Jeter run and watched how the ball jumped off his bat, I was like, ‘Wow, this kid’s got some talent. This kid’s got it.’ You could tell he wasn’t intimidated and he wanted to play.”
Darryl Strawberry: “I’d be talking to him in the dugout or in the clubhouse, just telling him, ‘Don’t worry about it, your day is coming, bro. This town is going to eat you up. They’re going to love you, trust me. You don’t have star potential; you’ve got megastar potential.’”
All of this is done to present the things we already know to be true about Jeter: He’s a winner. He’s poised. He’s determined. He’s had a blessed career. He inspires his teammates. He’s a charming gentleman and a great ambassador for the game. He only cares about championships. His greatness transcends the tangible.
Information that seems like it might contradict any of these preconceptions is merely presented as evidence of another. When he responds to early doubts about his defense by saying to a teammate, “I’m never moving from shortstop… never,” it’s presented as an example of his determination—not as evidence against his love of winning. His pickup techniques with women—“he’d extend his index finger and point and motion for them to come over without making a sound”—are evidence of his charm, and nothing less than gentlemanly. The fact that “he preferred clubs with roped-off areas for VIPs” is evidence of his quest for privacy and a respite from autograph-seekers he never turned down, not any elitism.
O’Connor does seem to criticize Jeter’s unforgiving nature, but even this is presented as a by-product of his perfectionism and self-confidence. When Ken Huckaby tried to apologize for injuring Jeter on Opening Day in 2003, Jeter responded with “nothing but a cold, bloodless stare.” This reaction, though, was only because Jeter was “hell-bent on making this a season to remember” and didn’t like missing 36 games.
But Jeter’s unforgiving streak also extended to any criticism he received. After Curtis told him he didn’t “know how to play the game,” he “was dead to Jeter” even after he apologized. Jeter had a similarly cold reaction to Alex Rodriguez’s infamous comments to Esquire in 2000.
Ah, A-Rod. Although O’Connor’s book is a biography of Jeter, there are times when it feels equally about Rodriguez. As O’Connor puts it: “Alex and Derek. Derek and Alex. The mention of one automatically inspired the mention of the other.” Indeed, there is an entire chapter just called “Alex,” and even that represents only a fraction of the time spent on Rodriguez.
This is perhaps the greatest fault of The Captain. While most of the myths the book espouses—Jeter as the ultimate winner, Jeter as the class act, Jeter as the leader, etc.—are harmless and true enough, insofar as sports myths go, the one that is the most noxious and unfair is that Jeter and A-Rod represent some kind of mirror image of one another, and that the only way to build one of them up is to tear the other one down.
And the book certainly does attempt to tear Rodriguez down, in an almost despicable way. O’Connor includes a quote in which Rodriguez compares his SAT scores with Jeter’s as an example of Rodriguez’s “Jeter envy.” But O’Connor doesn’t mention that the quote comes from 1996 or that Rodriguez was praising Jeter for winning a student-athlete award.
O’Connor even presents Rodriguez’s record-setting contract as an attempt to get revenge for losing the 2000 ALCS: “Rodriguez cold not beat Jeter, or Jeter’s team…. So A-Rod needed a different vehicle for retribution, a fresh plan of attack.” He then claims that Rodriguez cared so much about having the largest contract in baseball that he “figured he needed to protect the only title he could win” by criticizing Jeter. Of course, in both the interviews O’Connor mentions, Rodriguez was explicitly asked whether or not he thought another player could top his record. And the horrible things Rodriguez said?
“Even a guy like Derek, it’s going to be hard for him to break that [$252 million barrier] because he just doesn’t do the power numbers. And defensively, he doesn’t do all those things. So he might not break the 252. He might get 180. I don’t know what he’s going to get.”
Later, he would make more inflammatory remarks to Esquire that impugned Jeter’s leadership skills, but even those essentially boiled down to the inarguable fact that Jeter hit second in a very good lineup. And even then, when he found out that his words might have come off like an attack on Jeter, A-Rod drove ninety minutes to Jeter’s house to apologize in person.
But just as O’Connor manages to turn almost every fact about Jeter into a pro-Jeter fact, he manages to spin everything about Rodriguez against him. When A-Rod said, “I’m almost embarrassed and ashamed of this contract,” O’Connor presents it as A-Rod once again caring about how he looks.
The author can barely contain his contempt for Rodriguez, even including absurd potshots at him: “Jeter was said to have stolen [Joy] Enriquez’s affections away from A-Rod, who, of course, had it coming to him.” When Jeter wants to win, it’s an admirable quality; when A-Rod wants to win so badly he’s willing to switch positions it’s because he’s “desperate to avoid finishing his career without a parade to call his own.” Yeah, A-Rod’s only in it for the parade…
All of this is petty, illogical, and unprofessional. Parts of the book read as if they were written because Rodriguez killed O’Connor’s dog. It would be one thing if O’Connor had some new revelations or any hard evidence about the Jeter-Rodriguez relationship, but he doesn’t. He baselessly blames Jeter’s early 2004 slump on the “tense and awkward pairing on the left side of the infield” (yep, that’s what causes slumps). He spends almost a whole chapter on a pop-up the two botched in 2006 and the public fallout that resulted from it. He insists that Jeter “hated being A-Rod’s teammate” without any statement from Jeter or anyone who knows Jeter to back it up. In other words, O’Connor covers perceptions as if they are reality.
This, ultimately, is what the book boils down to. O’Connor tells people what they want to hear and what they already suspect to be true. People already believe that Jeter was a born star, that he is a natural winner, that he has great character, and that he and A-Rod despise each other. It doesn’t take much work to convince people of this, so O’Connor doesn’t bother. He’s happy to regurgitate the myths surrounding Jeter, even as the reality fans are seeing this season slides further and further away from the legend. O’Connor’s The Captain is not concerned with the truth about the captain.
Which is a shame, because Jeter is one of the most interesting athletes alive today. Like Tiger Woods, Jeter has always presented himself so immaculately that his real personality remains an object of curiosity. His career has really been unparalleled in the entire history of sports. But it’s not over yet. Some time in the future, after Jeter’s career has ended and all involved have some perspective on it, there is a great biography to be written. One that is worthy of the player. Until then, all we have is myth…