Derek Jeter is the man for a new era of Yankees fans
Reading is like tomatoes. You can eat tomatoes year-round, but when they come ripe locally (maybe this week!) you bite into one and realize that it’s just a totally different, more satisfying fruit.
Summertime reading is always different than any other time. Through the cooler and harder working months we get to read in snatches, read while we fall asleep, while we wait for an appointment, and we read mostly what we have to read. In summer there are, if we are lucky, some days given up mostly to absorbing a book.
My taste in reading tends toward biographies, and it happened that in the week that Derek Jeter garnered his 3,000th hit as a New York Yankee, I was reading a biography of another Yankee baseball legend. The author of the bio, a former sportswriter named Jane Leavy, calls her tome The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood (Harper Collins, 2010), and asserts that Mantle and his teammates were the last boys in the last decade run by boys. Bad boys. Bad boys who never grew up, and who were coddled and adored and, to use a term they never heard, enabled.
Mantle and Billy Martin and Whitey Ford, whose nickname said more than enough about the times, were among those who existed in a bubble of booze and misogyny that would make rock stars blush.
Full disclosure: I am an unabashed Mickey Mantle fan.
Friends, mostly from Boston, complain that someone who habitually roots for the underdog should never identify with a team whose logo was designed by Tiffany’s and whose uniform pinstripes mimic Wall Street brokers. To them I can only offer a two-word retort: Mickey Mantle.
Mickey Mantle was a mirror for the United States in the postwar boom. Ascendant, optimistic, powerful, brash, disrespectful, insular and untouchable. His story fed perfectly the national mythology of rags to riches: a man who literally rose from the ashes of a lead mine in Oklahoma to reign over the national pastime. His sins, like those of the country and its leaders, were kept hidden while we went along for the ride. The same pact that kept John Kennedy’s health issues and romancing out of the papers and that covered up our secret wars across Asia, Latin America and Africa allowed young boys like me to grow up blissfully ignorant of the other side of the Mick.
Then along came Jim Bouton and Daniel Ellsberg. Bouton’s Ball Four: My Life and Hard Times Throwing the Knuckleball in the Major Leagues (World Publishing Company, 1970), the first kiss-and-tell baseball insider story, pulled the veil from the drunken antics of major league baseball players, most notably Mantle, the way Ellsberg’s release of The Pentagon Papers displayed the twisted workings of the national security state. Neither sports nor politics would ever be the same.
Much is written today about how the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle feed the media frenzy for information. Some yearn for a return to a simpler time. But it was not lack of bandwidth that kept reporters from telling us what was really happening in the Yankee locker room, or in the Oval Office back then. It was a pact, an understanding, if you will, a (white) gentleman’s agreement.
Now comes Derek Jeter, an idol to baseball fans and the kind of person who inspires respect even from his adversaries. Witness the lineup of Tampa Bay Rays on the third base line applauding someone who had just hit a home run against them. His 3,000th hit, drilled into the left field bleachers on July 9, is part of a long career as remarkable for his character as his performance.
Even more amazing is that he does it in the era where telling all has replaced baseball as the national pastime. Search Wikipedia and all the gossip columns and anywhere you like and you find that the real Jeter is pretty much the same as the one we see on the diamond: a good guy. Maybe because he was raised right. Maybe because the media won’t happily paper over transgressions. Maybe both.
Jeter is the child of a biracial marriage that would have been illegal in the Oklahoma Mickey Mantle left in 1950 to join the Yankee organization. Jeter did not feel compelled, as Mantle did, to utter marriage vows he would never keep, in order to fit his father’s and his nation’s definition of manhood. If you read the life stories of these two Yankee icons, one of the unmistakable subplots is the evolution of the very notion of masculinity in our culture.
One of the saddest moments in the Mantle book is the press conference he held weeks before his death from alcohol-related liver cancer in 1995. He pleaded with young people seeking a role model to look elsewhere. In one of the most honest and pathetic sentences ever uttered in public, he fixed those fading baby blues on the camera and said, “Don’t be like me.”
In front of him sat the descendants of the reporters who had enabled this simple and goodhearted Okie to live a hidden life that wasted his talents and sent him to an early grave. In all honesty, they should have said the same thing.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times. Contact Ed at email@example.com.