I asked a thoroughly unfair question of New York Yankees fans a few days ago … but I asked it in good faith. I honestly was curious about it. And so, before I give the results, I am going to warn you that this column is about Derek Jeter and, given that premise, this column is probably not what you will be expecting.
I made a Twitter point the other day that this Miami Heat team has to be the most hated team in America since … well, who? The Pistons Bad Boys of the late 1980s? The Soviet hockey team in 1980? Vic Morrow’s team in The Bad News Bears? The team that gave us the movie “Gigli?”
I started hearing suggestions about most hated teams — the Duke basketball team, the undefeated New England Patriots, the Jimmy Johnson Cowboys and mostly, of course, the New York Yankees every single year. But I think these miss the point. My point about the Heat is that they have a very small fan base. Relatively speaking, few people actually ROOT for the Miami Heat. Someone named Adam Sherk tried to gauge fan interest last year based on Twitter and Facebook followers … and the Heat ranked 27th out of 30 teams and, best he could tell, did not even HAVE a Facebook page. That figures. The Heat certainly has fans in South Florida, but they have been pretty much a zero nationally, even with the eminently likable Dwayne Wade playing the starring role. LeBron James brought over some fans, but he brought over exponentially more Heat Haters.
And those other “hated” teams? They have LOTS AND LOTS and LOTS of fans. The Patriots? Are you kidding me? All of New England roots for the Patriots. Duke basketball has a huge fan base, an enormous fan base, a much, much, much bigger national fan base than a small private school in North Carolina (attended by Richard Nixon, Drew Rosenhaus, Ken Starr, Barack Obama’s personal aide and the guy who was John Gotti’s attorney) could possibly expect. The Cowboys fan base is almost certainly the largest in the NFL.
And the Yankees. Yes, of course, many people despise the Yankees. But year after year, the Yankees are also America’s most popular baseball team. According to the Harris Interactive poll, the Yankees have been America’s most popular team every year since 2003. In the decade, the Yankees easily drew a more road fans than any other team — only some of them buying tickets to boo. The Yankees are hugely popular in addition to being hugely unpopular. It amazes me that some people miss that.
Because the Yankees are hugely popular nationally … there is probably a greater diversity inside the Yankee Nation than any other team. There are lifelong Yankees fans who remember those days when the Yankees were basically the only team around. There are New Yorkers who want to be connected to the city. There are people who like winners. There are people who like the Yankees history. There are Mickey Mantle fans, there are Joe DiMaggio fans, there are Babe Ruth fans, there are people who moved to America and wanted to like baseball and thought that meant liking the Yankees, there are Billy Martin fans, there are Reggie Jackson fans, there are television executives, there are casual fans who like being seen at the ballpark, there are people who like the hat …
The person who brings all these various Yankees factions together, I think, is Derek Jeter. We write a lot about Jeter here, some good, some not so good, and and over time I have been called a Jeter hater and a Jeter apologist (though more hater, I suppose). The thing that annoys non-Yankees fans about Jeter, I think, has less to do with Jeter himself and more to do with the intense campaign to spin him into the perfect ballplayer. He is great enough as is. He’s been a terrific hitter — one of the three best, I think, to ever play shortstop — a durable player, a smart player, a leader, a good teammate, a credit to the game. He’s going to the Hall of Fame the first day he’s eligible, and I will be one of those people proudly voting for him.
Trouble is, when Jeter wins his fifth Gold Glove — like he did on Tuesday — even when the best statistical evidence suggests he has been a well-below average defender throughout his career, well, that’s the stuff that drives people nuts about Jeter. There are “How did Jeter win another Gold Glove” posts popping up every eight seconds on the Internet (there will be 48 new ones by the time you finish reading this post)*.
*I was talking about how the Gold Glove voting works with an editor, and something struck me that I had not thought about before. You probably know that the Gold Gloves are voted for by managers and coaches. And really … this is the only award they’ve got. They don’t vote for the MVP, for Rookie of the Year, for Cy Young, for Manager of the Year, for the Hall of Fame, for almost anything. They vote for the Gold Gloves. That’s it.
And I think that, in many of their minds, the Gold Gloves probably take on a larger meaning. Sure, it’s about defense. But I wonder if for many it really is about rewarding those players who PLAY THE GAME RIGHT. The advanced stats always suggested that Ken Griffey Jr. was overrated defensively, but he won the Gold Glove every year in part, I think, because the way he played appealed to managers and coaches. There are a lot of guys like that. And if you look at the Gold Gloves that way — not as the best defensive players, exactly, but as the players who most appeal to managers and coaches for the way they play — it starts to make a whole lot more sense.
And in this scenario, sure, they vote for Derek Jeter. Let’s be honest, there has been a void of great defensive shortstops in the American League the last few years. The Fielding Bible has been choosing the best defensive players in baseball for five years, and none of the winning shortstops have been American Leaguers (except Jack Wilson who played half a season in Seattle). The top two Fielding Bible choices this year — Troy Tulowitzki and Brendan Ryan — were both National Leaguers and they were both far and away better than anyone in the American League. The top American League choice was Chicago’s Alexei Ramirez, who did seem to have a good defensive year but he was pretty average last year and it’s not like we’re ready to crown him as Mark Belanger just yet. After Ramirez, there’s Elvis Andrus, who looks like a terrific shortstop but actually did not have a great numbers year by the two most prominent advanced defensive stats, Dewan Plus/Minus or UZR.
So, if you’re a manager, and there’s a vacuum at shortstop anyway, why not vote for Derek Jeter? This is your one chance to say you appreciate the way the guy plays. Looking at it that way, Jeter’s five Gold Glove suddenly seem a lot more logical (though no less infuriating to the anti-Jeter crowd).
Point is, when announcers Jeterate Jeter — when they go on and on and on and on about something Jeter did that basically anyone would have done — when superhero myths build around him*, when the Jeter intangible talk gets hot and heavy, yes, that’s when non-Yankees fans begin to feel nauseous.
*Did you know that Jeter is now hitting lower and has a lower on-base percentage in the postseason than in the regular season?
But … there’s something here that I have never quite said before. My parents moved from New York to Cleveland just before I was born. And I know myself well enough to know that if things had been different, if I had been born and raised in New York, I’d be a huge Derek Jeter fan. An insufferable Derek Jeter fan. Why? Because Jeter is a great player. And, perhaps even more, because Jeter is a pro. I have watched for more than a decade now the way he has handled the responsibility and pressures of being the face of the Yankees, and I have been awed. He doesn’t hide from the media. He doesn’t complain about the expectations. He doesn’t brag, but he he doesn’t act falsely modest. He doesn’t say anything controversial, but he doesn’t back away from taking stands for the good of the team. Everyone here knows how much I love Joe Mauer, but I’m not sure how ready he is for all the stuff that comes with being one of baseball’s biggest stars. I saw him really struggling with the media and his role as face of the franchise after his big contract — and that’s in Minnesota. It’s not anywhere close to as easy as people think. Jeter has handled the biggest city and his place in the game it like he was born for it.
So, yes, Derek Jeter to Yankees fans really does mean a lot more than his numbers, his strengths, his flaws. It seems to me that Jeter, more than anyone else, has made rooting for the Yankees fun. It’s tempting to say that Yankees fans are more Machiavellian than other fans, that they don’t care who the players are as long as the players win … but I suspect this isn’t really true, not for most of them. It’s all well and good to pick up a Roger Clemens to make the team more dominant, but to build a whole team of Roger Clemens, a team of soldiers of fortune, well, maybe some Yankees fans would be OK with it, but I suspect most wouldn’t. The Yankees had those sorts of contract killer teams before, and the fans desperately clung to Don Mattingly, the real Yankee — who as New York Post columnist Joel Sherman has said and written was every bit as big to Yankees fans in the 1980s and early 1990s as Jeter is today.
Jeter — along with Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, a few others, but mostly Jeter — gave the Yankees a soul. And so, yes, I do understand why many Yankees fans romanticize Jeter even beyond his already substantial greatness. I know I would do the same.
Which leads to the unfair question I posed to Yankees fans: If you could trade Derek Jeter tomorrow to Florida for Hanley Ramirez, would you do it?
This question is unfair on many levels. One, it’s not possible. The Marlins (of course) wouldn’t trade Ramirez for Jeter, and the Yankees don’t even have Jeter under contract so could not trade him. Two, it’s not equitable. Jeter is 36 going on 37, Ramirez is 26 going on 27, Jeter is showing clear signs of decline, Ramirez (even taking into account a down year in 2010) is one of the best player in baseball. This is a trade that any non-Yankees fan would make in a heartbeat. It’s an absurd, talk-radio-caller kind of trade.
But I wasn’t looking for a baseball judgment. That’s obvious. I was looking to see just how sentimental Yankees fans are about the Captain. We all know that Jeter’s contract is up, and we all know he will end up playing for the Yankees next year because there’s really no viable option. But in the meantime, there has already been some testiness because there are many millions of dollars at stake, and Jeter is coming off by far the worst year of his career (a 90 OPS+, a league leading 515 outs, terrible defensive numbers), and there are numerous issues involved here.
So I wanted to know: How much do Yankees fans really love Jeter? Would they be willing, in his declining years, to consign him the Florida wilderness to get his 3,000th hit? Would they be willing, in his declining years, to trade him away for a younger and clearly superior player … and not just ANY younger and clearly superior player but one who has a reputation as a malingerer, a pain in the neck, in many ways the anti-Jeter.*
*Several Yankees fans responded that they would rather have Troy Tulowitzki. Well, OF COURSE you would rather have Troy Tulowitzki, but that’s not the question, is it?
The responses poured in … and I have to say almost all of them were terrific. I’ll list a few:
Brilliant Reader Jordan: “This Yankees fan would trade Jeter for Hanley in a cocaine heartbeat and never lose a moment of sleep over it.”
Brilliant Reader Rabbi Jason: “I know that Hanley is the better shortstop. He’s a better shortstop than Jeter has been in years. … But in my soft, mushy, Norman Rockwell painted, nostalgic soul, I still want baseball to be about more than winning in any way, at any cost. … I don’t want to live in that world, so I’m keeping my Jeter.”
Brilliant Reader John: “Of course Hanley would be a much better shortstop, but we couldn’t live with ourselves. Jeter can’t leave. … Now I have to point out that I have never been to a baseball game and I live in Norway. But I really believe many Yankees fans feel this way.”
Brilliant Reader Jeff: “Yes, I do the trade in an instant. Ruth didn’t get to finish a Yankee. Berra didn’t either. DiMaggio got pushed out when a better player was available in Mantle. Players are expendable and winning is what matters.”
Brilliant Reader Robert: “This is a wonderful question and you are a sinister and evil man for asking it. Because the answer is perfectly obvious – you make the trade. You make the trade for the good of the team.”
Brilliant Reader Al: “No way. Not for anybody. … You don’t trade the Empire State Building for the Bellagio.”
I love that. Al also added this caveat: “We’ll just sign Hanley (or whoever we need at the time) as a free agent when he becomes available.”
The answers poured in … some saying that anyone who wouldn’t trade Jeter in an obviously lopsided deal wasn’t a TRUE Yankees fan … some saying that anyone who WOULD trade Jeter wasn’t a TRUE Yankees fan … some saying that Jeter adds so much off the field that even now he still helps the Yankees win in a way Hanley Ramirez never could … some saying that they root for the New York Yankees, not Derek Jeter, and while they love the guy they know he won’t last forever and they’re ready to move on whenever the time comes.
It wasn’t a fair question, not at all, but I think the emotions involved are fair and real. What do you do when your favorite player gets older? What do you do when there’s still hope that he might be great again but the hope is fading. I’ll tell you the results of the poll, but you won’t believe them. More than 300 Yankees fans wrote in with an answer to that question: Would you trade Derek Jeter for Hanley Ramirez. Three hundred forty seven to be exact.
One hundred seventy three of them said yes.
One hundred seventy three of them said no.
And one, from Brilliant Reader Joey, who says simply: “As far as trading Derek Jeter for Hanley Ramirez, I answer wholeheartedly yes … and also no.”