I tend to shy away from hyperbole as a writer, but here I am on this idle Wednesday, attempting to compartmentalize what Derek Jeter meant to baseball on the heels of his election into the Hall of Fame.
What an asinine thing to do. After all, no one player is bigger than the game — especially baseball.
Yet here we are, categorizing the Yankees captain as a pseudo-savior of the game once again, ascending to the national spotlight at the perfect time for Major League Baseball.
The last 10 days have been nothing short of a nightmare for MLB after commissioner Rob Manfred published the findings of his investigation into the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing allegations during the 2017 season.
Illegal use of video cameras that gave Houston batters an unfair advantage during their World Series-winning campaign led to the firings of manager AJ Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow, a sizable $5 million fine, and the forfeiture of first and second-round draft picks over the next two years.
The reach of the scandal’s tentacles hardly ended in Houston, though. Former bench coach Alex Cora, who took over the Boston Red Sox and led them to a World Series title in 2018, was forced out of Beantown.
Carlos Beltran, a veteran presence for the Astros in 2017, was the only player named in Manfred’s report, which led the Mets to part ways with the manager they had hired three months prior in November.
America’s national pastime has had its fair share of dark days, ranging from the Black Sox scandal of 1919 to Pete Rose betting on Baseball seven decades later.
But for a sport that once proudly stood at the forefront of American culture, a scandal of this proportion is the last thing baseball needed as its reputation has steadily taken hit after hit over the last 30 years.
When I’m tasked to explain the significance of baseball in America, I simply point to noted essayist Gerald Early’s remarks in Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary “Baseball”:
“There are only three things that America will be remembered for 2,000 years from now when they study this civilization: The Constitution, jazz music, and baseball.”
Since that spot-on observation, baseball has been surpassed in popularity by the NBA and NFL as the nation’s most popular sports.
Fans complain that the pace of play is too slow while others cite a lack of gusto from low-scoring affairs.
A year where altered baseballs to promote more home runs undermined the public trust, the Astros’ sign-stealing fiasco further worsened MLB’s standing amongst the sport-consuming public.
But much like his unexpected sprint from shortstop to home plate in Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS against the Oakland A’s to execute “The Flip,” Jeter is at the right place at the right time for baseball.
One of the greatest shortstops in MLB history built his reputation as a superstar within the biggest sporting market on the planet the right way.
His Hall-of-Fame resume is an endless list of accolades, ranging from 3,465 hits that rank sixth all-time in MLB history to 14 All-Star Game selections, to five championships, five Gold Gloves, five Silver Sluggers, a Rookie of the Year, a World Series MVP, and an All-Star Game MVP.
And he starred during baseball’s last great threat: The steroid era.
The late 1990s and early 2000s were once considered a second-coming of the golden age for the sport.
Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire dominated the league with their home-run records. Rafael Palmeiro was one of the greatest all-around hitters in the game. Roger Clemens was one of the most dominant pitchers in the game.
All of them took illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
The ensuing anxiety that toed the line of McCarthyism saw almost every big star’s legitimacy questioned — except for Jeter.
No. 2 did nothing but hit… and win. And doing so in as quiet a manner as one can in New York City made his adoration from fans that much more intense.
He provided purity in the time of artificiality; Tangibility within uncertainty.
Now, with almost unanimous approval to gain entry into the hallowed halls of Cooperstown, Jeter is doing that again.