Skip to content

March 4 2001 : Mythic Proportions (The A-Rod-Jeter Thing)

I must be cranky today, because I’ve decided I’ve heard more than I want to hear about the supposed friendship and/or feud between Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

Normally I eat this kind of stuff up. Not tabloid-ish gossip about players’ private lives, no. I don’t care if David Justice’s ex-fiancee is a gold-digger or if Rick Ankiel’s father is a convict. I don’t even particularly care if Jeter is dating Miss Universe, though it did give me a chuckle or two in November. (Think about it: it almost sounds like a joke, as if Jeter decided to go straight to the top of the list and get it over with… now he never has to date again.) No, what interests me about the “human” side of baseball is where it actually intersects the game.

The Yankees have no shortage of that. How about Joe Torre managing his team to an incredible World Series win with his brother Frank having a heart transplant? Paul O’Neill playing the final game of the 1999 World Series the day his father passed away. Or Doc Gooden pitching a no-hitter while his father lay in a hospital in Florida from which he would never leave. Not all my examples are so dire–I thought it was sweet that while Shane Spencer was out for the season with a torn knee ligament, he and his fiancee decided to marry. Or how about the fact that if you trace back the date of birth of Andy Pettitte’s most recent child, you figure she was probably conceived while Pettitte was on the DL… These are stories about the men who play the game, stories which enhance our understanding of them as human, even as they achieve the seemingly superhuman.

The A-rod/Jeter mythology has been growing since the two of them were prospects, and the press latched onto their acquaintance early. The near Homeric quality of the situation concerning these two top draft picks, both shortstops, both so similar and yet in opposing camps, was tantalizing to writers. I mean, come on–every baseball writer is secretly (or not so secretly) a literary mind–there was no resisting such a juicy scenario. The story has it that when Derek was in his first year in the Yankee system, playing in Florida, a mutual friend introduced the two of them. Alex, still in high school at the time, was about to go through the rollercoaster of the baseball amateur draft, with teams and agents hounding him, etc… and he reached out to Derek for advice.

If you believe the stories, and I do, they hit it off and became friends. If I had to speculate, I’d say that each of them had an inkling of what the future might hold in store, and that having a peer, someone with common problems, challenges, and insights, would be valuable. Certainly once they both made the big leagues, they both played up the friendship at various points. In the diary on his personal web site (which has since gone corporate, just like A-rod himself), Alex frequently mentioned having seen Jeter socially during the offseason, relating tales of their GQ photo shoot, New Year’s Eve parties, and the like. Derek, for his part, could be heard joking with broadcasters before Seattle games about the bragging phone calls they would make to each other. Derek would stay at Alex’s apartment in Seattle rather than in the team hotel. You have to assume it wasn’t to save money on the hotel bill. Maybe they even genuinely liked each other’s company.

But for all that these two Icons of Twenty First Century Baseball may have in common, two factors are constantly at work to pull them apart. One is baseball itself. It’s difficult to maintain friendships with people when one or both of you is traveling most of the year, and you live in two different time zones. Then there’s the fishbowl factor. How easy is it to live a normal life or maintain a normal relationship of any kind, with the media writing about it constantly? Not easy at all, it would seem.

Robert Christgau wrote one of the most compelling articles on the 2000 postseason in The Village Voice, in which he described our boys thus: “…the almost Hellenic attachment between these two paragons … has the makings of primal metaphor and psychodrama, and I want to see it tested. Will these postracial standard bearers be allowed to love each other like brothers? And if so, can their bond survive two careers’ worth of competition?”

Christgau, like the writers who began pouring out ink on the Jeter/A-rod “thing” as early as 1996, and like the fans who watch every aspect of the game so closely, senses drama in the making. But I think the competition he referred to was on the field, not off. Jeter’s Yankees did beat A-rod’s Mariners, in a heart-stopping game in which A-rod almost was hero enough to single-handedly turn the tide of the game back in the M’s favor. The delicious nature of the conflict on the field was only heightened by the thought that these two buddies, when they are decrepit and retired to Florida, could sit in rocking chairs on the porch and replay the game like old marrieds do. “But remember when you…?” “Ah yes, but then…”

Yes, we wanted to see their friendship tested. But we wanted to see it tested on the field, not in the press and on talk shows, not to see the “competition” made about money and prestige and greed. Maybe Christgau had it right when he called them brothers, because in the Jeter/A-rod drama, Alex Rodriguez is now playing the part of the jealous younger sibling.

Twice, it seems, he’s trash talked about Jeter to the national media, and then tried to backpedal and say that wasn’t what he meant. But Rodriguez spent most of this offseason backpedaling, either from his own statements or from those of his agent, Scott Boras. You have to wonder, why now? After years of cultivating an image, like Jeter, of being a wonder boy, hardworking, clean cut, wholesome, he finally has the payoff of the largest contract in sports history. Yet it is sullied by controversial statements made by Steve Phillips, Mets GM, many of which were clearly Phillips’ own spin-control, but all too many of which were easy to believe when A-rod and Boras’ defenses rang hollow.

Could it be that Rodriguez really is like a little brother to Derek? Tired of trying to live up to the older brother’s image, his World Series rings, the way he does everything perfectly, now Alex is rebelling? Even when brothers love each other, the one in the shadow sometimes has to push the older one away, he can’t help it. And like a little brother, he’s not mature enough to realize that’s what he’s doing.

Derek Jeter is mature enough to see it, and he’s not about to start trashing Rodriguez back in the press. Jeter knows you can’t conduct a relationship through the sports page–a relationship happens person to person. He gave reporters as sensible an answer as you could imagine, when writers pressed him on A-rod’s remarks yesterday. Jeter said he’d call him and talk about it.

Today the headlines are reading “they talked by phone!” Now I think I’ve really seen enough. It’s headline-worthy when one baseball player calls another one on the phone? Oh, please. I’m trying to imagine it: “Prime Minister Tony Blair was reported in The New York Times to have said ‘George W. has never had to lead a nation before. He’s just been able to play and have fun.’ When told of the British leader’s remarks, W. told the press corps he’d find out just what Blair meant. ‘I’ll call him tonight,’ W. said.”

Hmmm, that example may just be a little too close to the truth. I actually CAN imagine just such a flap being all over CNN. So I guess I should not be surprised that the baseball media is no different.

But as I said, I think I’ve had enough. I don’t want to know what Jeter said to A-rod, and I don’t want to hear their every move reported like Camilla Parker-Bowles and Prince Charles. Jeter is too mature to play this game of “he said, he said,” and hopefully when he and Alex actually do get to spend some quality time together, they’ll discover they like each other more than fame. Maybe Jeter will help Alex to grow up a little. We in the media and in the stands will have to do that for ourselves.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *