Derek Jeter will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame today; it’s an occasion for reflecting on and praising the great longtime Yankees shortstop. Much of the praise will be well-deserved: for his longevity, his consistency, his canny baserunning, the sheer number of important games and moments that involved him; for the time he did the cool thing in the 2001 ALDS where he cut off the errant throw from right field and flipped it to the catcher to steal a run from the Oakland Athletics; for his lifetime .310 batting average in an era whose hitting conventions looked more favorably on his brand of situational opposite-field slap-singling (all polite ways of saying he did not hit with much power). Hopefully not much of it will be for his defense, which was atrocious. None of it, I feel confident asserting, will be weirder than that offered to the New York Times by Yankees manager Aaron Boone, who played alongside Jeter in 2003:
“Derek was, I think, the most confident player I ever played with […] The guy who just said: ‘Give me the ball,’ always wanted the ball, and just played the game with a ton of confidence.New York Times
What does wanting the ball mean, in the context of a shortstop on a baseball team? What even can it mean? Like, what the fuck does it mean, man.
Was Derek Jeter demanding to be allowed to pitch? In the field, when an opposing hitter smacked a grounder to the right side, was he shouting for the second baseman to throw the ball to him, at shortstop, rather than to first base for the easy force out? During plate appearances, when the opposing pitcher fired in strike two, was he trying to snatch the ball out of the catcher’s glove and, like, claim it for himself? When the ball came to him in the field, did he have to be talked out of swallowing it, or digging a little hole in the infield dirt and burying it like a fucking squirrel? Was his locker just stuffed to the brim with pilfered baseballs? These are deranged behaviors. Possibly Aaron Boone is telling you that Derek Jeter was a friggin’ psycho. Or that he had no damn idea how to play baseball.
Less distressingly, maybe what Boone is revealing is that he, himself, doesn’t understand how sports compliments work. Some of that stuff is sport-specific! You can’t just port canned praise from one sport to another and expect that it will mean the same thing. You can’t be like “Derek was the ultimate competitor. He always went last in penalty shootouts,” and expect that anyone will be like “Yes. I know what that means when you say it about a baseball player for the New York Yankees.” The toughest ballplayer I ever knew. He’d walk right through a flurry of hard straights just to land one big counter to the body. That’s damn nonsense, Aaron. Absorbing punches for the sake of dishing them out is not part of baseball. It is not part of any ball! However good or bad Derek Jeter might have been at it, you can’t praise him as a ballplayer by way of his willingness to eat jabs and crosses for the sake of getting close and working the body. Get it together, man.
In any event, demanding the ball is about the only way statue-ass Derek Jeter could get it in the field, unless somebody happened to hit a soft grounder directly at his feet.