Skip to main content

Derek Jeter: Baseball's humble hero

By Jeff Pearlman
February 14, 2014 -- Updated 1706 GMT (0106 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Years ago, reporter Jeff Pearlman asked Yankee Derek Jeter about dating Mariah Carey
  • Pearlman: Jeter, who' retiring, is classy baseball hero
  • He says shortstop doesn't self promote, his stellar record shows brilliance on field
  • Pearlman: He's at the top of heap for shortstops, but is just a guy who wants to be a guy

Editor's note: Jeff Pearlman blogs at jeffpearlman.com. His latest book, "Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s," comes out March 4. Follow him on twitter @jeffpearlman.

(CNN) -- It was a June day in 2000. The Yankees were facing the Braves at Turner Field. I was on hand to profile one of Atlanta's players for Sports Illustrated, but my cell phone rang, and a dreadful request followed. "Supposedly Derek Jeter and Mariah Carey are dating," my editor said. "Can you go ask him about it?"

Glub. I was 27 years old, relatively new to the baseball beat. There are things I'd have been willing to ask Jeter. Do you like cats? What's your favorite song on the new John Oates CD? Have you ever been to Malta? The one thing I didn't want to ask him about was his all-over-the-gossip-pages relationship with Mariah Carey.

Alas, I needed to keep my job.

I entered the Yankee clubhouse and immediately spotted Jeter, alone by his locker, changing into his uniform. I introduced myself. He nodded.

"Derek," I said, "I hate asking you this, and I'm really embarrassed, but my editor insisted. He wanted me to approach you about Mariah Carey."

Jeff Pearlman
Jeff Pearlman
Derek Jeter to retire after 2014
Derek Jeter: 'Odd' to be on sidelines

I expected Jeter to tell me to bug off.

I expected Jeter to demand my removal from his space.

I did not expect what ensued — laughter.

"Listen," he said, grinning, "I understand you're just doing your job. I really do. And I'm not mad or irritated. But I'm not going to comment, because it's no one's business but mine. Just because I play baseball doesn't mean I have to tell everyone everything. My life is my life."

We shook hands, and I walked off — content and relieved, but mostly impressed. Now, 14 years later, with Jeter announcing that the upcoming season will be his last, I remain impressed. Actually, scratch that. Really, when I think of Jeter, the classy Yankee shortstop whose 2019 Hall of Fame induction is a 100% lock, the word that pops into my head is encouraged.

Yes, I am encouraged.

Derek Jeter, you see, does not have a Twitter account. He does not refer to himself in the third person or have his nickname tattooed across his back. (Come to think of it, he doesn't really have a nickname.) He's never gone out of his way to publicly humiliate an opponent or prop himself up with inane boasts of superiority. If the words "I'm the man" ever escaped his lips, they were surely followed by, "... who ordered the pizza about 20 minutes ago. I decided to pick it up instead. Can I also grab a bottle of water and some napkins?"

Throughout the first 18 seasons of his career, Jeter has often been labeled "dull" by the media. His answers to questions are unimaginative and full of cliché baseball nothingness blather. In hindsight, however, such lameness is almost to be admired. We live in an era where too many athletes feel as if they need to draw attention to themselves — for confidence, for commercials. If you're not tweeting trash talk, you're texting trash talk. Or making bold promises. Or demanding money or respect.

Jeter has both money and respect, byproducts of a dogged work ethic and a need to play with 100% ferocity, health be damned. His 3,316 hits are the most in Yankee history, and his 256 home runs, 1,261 RBIs, 348 stolen bases and .312 lifetime batting average serve as odes to a continued brilliance.

Most important, you never hear a bad word about the man.

Back in 1997, Sports Illustrated ran a cover story on the next generation of Major League shortstops. The piece highlighted the skills of Jeter, Seattle's Alex Rodriguez, Toronto's Alex Gonzalez, Florida's Edgar Renteria and the Mets' Rey Ordonez. The men were listed as near-equals, and writer Tom Verducci noted that, "Not since 1941 have so many young shortstops arrived with this much potential."

Before long, however, things changed. Ordonez never learned to hit. Gonzalez was merely OK. Renteria spent many years in the game as a good but not especially great player. Rodriguez was doomed by accusations of doping. That left Jeter — the most understated of the group, the most professional of the group.

He will be remembered by many people for many things. Among Yankee fans, he's grouped with Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle as pinstriped royalty. Among Red Sox fans, he's a thorn to the skull. Among Oakland fans, he's a killer of dreams.

To me, though, he's a guy who merely wanted to be a guy.

That's what makes him exceptional.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeff Pearlman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1252 GMT (2052 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT