Reading Jeter’s Joy

I am not a sports fan.

It’s true, I watch a little, and have some bits of gear – my Italia jersey that I wear when the World Cup comes around, my Yankee hat – and in a vague way I keep up. But having a stake in the fluctuating fortunes of the New York Yankees has never felt to me like, say, a devotional practice, in the way that listening to bands and reading books and fighting about them so plainly has been. I’ve liked the Yankees fine. But the truth is I have not loved Mariano Rivera with anything like the life-traversing ardor with which I’ve loved Emily Dickinson, or Carson McCullers, or Prince, or Mac and Laura from Superchunk.

SO imagine my surprise as, in these last weeks, I found myself planted night after idle night on my couch here in Chicago, watching the last season of one of those Yankees unfold, one mediocre outing into the next. When people I know express surprise that I watch baseball at all – I evidently do not give off the convincing vibe of someone who gives a lot of fucks about baseball – I have this stock line prepared for them: Some people meditate; some people do yoga; I watch baseball. And it’s true. It chills me out.

But these weeks have been different, and not because it’s now autumn, the season of high-stakes play in baseball. Not so for the Yankees, who have been all but mathematically out of it for some time. The drama, for me, has been elsewhere. You probably know by now that the Yankee captain, Derek Jeter, has for the whole of the year been taking a kind of victory lap around baseball. About this hyper-mediatized peacocking, as about Jeter himself, I have found it hard to care that much one way or another. It’s mawkish and sappy and hyperbolically commercialized, certainly, the sport’s way of staging an elaborate season-long commercial for itself and it’s confected virtues.

Of course the mawkish spectacle has also been accompanied by an inevitable Jeter-hating backlash, much of it a kind of push-back against traditional sportswriting’s gauzy appraisals of “character” and “respect” and, oh god, “grit.” Fair enough.

But then a truly strange thing happened. Reading the backlash, cycling through still another account of how statistically only just ok Jeter is, about how idiotically distracted everyone’s been allowing themselves to be by inessential extra-factual aspects of his 20 years of on-field performance, I discovered, a bit wonderingly, that I was pissed off. I got pissed off, I mean, in the way I might if someone had written a dumb account of a book I really cherished, or a singularly ungenerous record review.

This was a surprise.

 

***

How do we account for athletes? Are they simple collections of data? I’m not so sure, though neither I am much interested in turning them into stand-ins for our least imaginative values (“giving 110%”). Still, being unduped by the dipshit invocations of character and the like has seemed to require a pretending-away of much that makes games watchable, and players compelling, and sports themselves intricately joyous, in ways that do not reduce to metrics. So, writing in the key of backlash, the otherwise capable Tom Scocca offered this paragraph of pure performed unknowing:

Like most star athletes of his era, he kept his public persona intentionally blank and dull, but with none of the awkward self-consciousness of the similarly restrained Rodriguez. Depending on their allegiances, baseball fans could imagine him to be classy or imagine him to be pissy, and the limited evidence could support either conclusion.

Honestly I read this and thought, Dude are you fucking joking me? Blank and dull? To come to that conclusion you have to ignore, effortfully, the whole rich trove of things that make the player who he is and has been. I’m thinking of all those accrued micro-gestures and tics of personality that as a kid you imitate and as a fan you gather in in their accreted mass – like the reader of a character in a novel – until you have a character, real and fictional at once, over whom you can agree or disagree as your pleasure takes you. Blank and dull? That shrugs away the wry grin, the capacity for deadpan humor, the odd coldness he could sometimes show, the occasional arched eyebrow at some opposing player as they chatted around second; and this is not even to mention the right hand up to the umpire, the clapped hands rounding first, the downward lateral slash of the practice swing. All of that is blank and dull only if what you want is Mad Al Hrobosky.

And while none of that makes him the greatest Yankee of all time or even a good shortstop still I’d say the pretense that none of it is even there is its own kind of bullshit, a kind of trying-too-hard to be over any but the hardest of hard facts. Again and again I thought: this is like appraising a novel in the conviction that the character of the sentences, their curl and bite, does not matter, not at least in relation to what happens to whom and how. Reading the backlash, I was reminded of nothing so much as certain kinds of technocratic boy-critics, determined in their critical austerity to be unseduced by the frivolous distractions of pleasure.

Another way of saying this is that I realized, dear reader, that I maybe loved Derek Jeter.

***

AND so there I was Thursday night, in the familiar position: supine, beer in hand, enjoying a baseball-induced lateral drift away from my life, and enjoying too the warm embrace of my elegant new couch. Everything, I should say, was new, the couch, the table, the TV, the room, the city, everything. I was back in Chicago at all only because, after some sixteen adventurous years teaching at a small college in coastal Maine, in the spring I’d accepted a job out here, in this city to I had over the years developed a habit of returning in moments of great exuberance or great need. I’d arrived in early July, right around the All-Star break.

And, a bit like the Yankees, I’d had a trying sort of summer, some wins scattered around what often felt, in a day to day way, like a lot of losses. As it turns out, it’s hard, launching yourself into such lifewide upheaval, harder at least than it was when last I changed cities and jobs, as a buoyant and mostly witless 27 year old. All of it had left me a bit glassy-eyed here in Chicago, feeling a weird combination of battered, faintly exhilarated, and, often, very very scared. Are you excited? people would ask. And I’d say, Oh, I’m sure I’ll go back to feeling excited, once these tides of panicky dread recede.

They did not, not immediately. Instead I walked around this city I had always delighted in and experienced a strange sort of dislocation. I had people here, in fact some very dear loves, and a small band of generous-hearted friends of friends who were willing to meet up for bourbon and sypmathy. All of this was steadying. But I felt too, with sometimes terrible acuity, the difference between having some people and being part of a world – some dense and coherent collection of interwoven loves among whom you feel not just safe, and not just pleasingly legible, but enriched, enlivened, pushed out toward ampler versions of yourself. On the losing days (and I confess there were more of these than otherwise) it felt like desolation, this living at the center of a world grown, suddenly, pretty uncrowded. I’d wake up alone, in this new place, blink myself awake, and there’d come this quick hot burst of fear: of aloneness, of isolation without remedy, of a separateness from the heat and light of the turning human world.

 

***

 

ALL of this was alive in me as I sat there watching Jeter’s final game unfold. But it wasn’t just the spectacle of this 40-year-old gamely wheezing through his final days, though I confess that for much of the summer I’d enjoyed watching Jeter play in much the way you might enjoy a Medieval morality play entitled MIDDLE AGE. (Jeter’s final season was so much not that of Mariano Rivera, who’d retired the year before, and provided a daily fantasy of the possibility of time-smiting agelessness.) Maybe it was just the heightened focus of impending loss, that bright clarity of vision that comes to you when you know you’re watching something as it takes place, in real time, unpredetermined, for the last time. And yet it didn’t feel elegiac, exactly. Nothing about it wrought me up with a sense of diminishment or impending loss. Instead, the whole game – the RBI double in the first, the fumbling throwing error the next inning, followed by that crooked self-deprecating grin – came to me steeped in a kind of pleasure I hadn’t been looking for, and was surprised to find.

Inevitably, as the innings clicked along, the game was more and more attended by specific delights of social media, its odd and warming proximities. Via text and email and Twitter, across Facebook posts and threads, there came the companionable satire and invective. “Will Jeter play old-timer games or go full Jay-Z and start hanging out with Marina Abramovic?” one friend inquired. And then another, “As an older and wiser Red Sox fan, one who has known many defeats but finally some triumphs, seen the ebb and the flow, one who has learned the humanity and frailty of opponents and heroes, I think I have the good grace to say, fuck every Yankee ever, and the horses they rode in on, twice.” It was like that, which is to say: ordinary, familiar, and great.

But then the drama kicked in, the lead, the loss of the lead, the dawning realization that Jeter would, indeed, come to bat again. And there it was. You’ve seen it and, I hope, heard it:

 

 

Now, the idea that watching a player speed around first base could be like hearing the key change in song you once fell in love to – this may not be news to you. But Derek Jeter, in his last at bat in Bronx, smacked a b-grade fastball into right and he rounded first in a state of half-shocked delight, and this lousy losing team gathered around him as if they were once more actually champions, and the huge new stadium, that wretched monument to the grossest neoliberal expropriation, shook on its soldered foundations, and my heart, my stupid counterfactual heart, leapt into my throat.

But you know, it was just Derek Jeter, middle-aged man in a costume, arresting time and holding it open, precisely the way a song does – the way he’d done for me in 2003, when I was watching the ACLS playoffs in New York and was newly married and almost derangingly happy; or in 2009 when I’d last taken my broken-open life to Chicago for repair and renewal and he’d won still another World Series, the final game of which I watched in a corner bar while wearing a Mickey Mantle jersey that my uncle had given to me only months before, as a way of saying what he did not quite have the words to say, which was, “It’s awful that you’re so sad but listen you have nothing to be ashamed of and I love you still”; or on some dull Maine night in the middle-oughts when one of his weak rally-killing double-play ground-outs gave me and a bar full of Sox fans something to whine and joke and fight about.

Like about ten million other people, I’d had a lot of life transpire in the company of that quasi-virtual figure being mobbed on the infield in the Bronx. So seeing the undiluted joy of it, of the moment and its consummation and its instantaneous canonization, rolled through me as an exhilaration just as silly and rapturous as it was statistically unsound.

And it didn’t even feel like winning – even I am not so counterfactual as that – but something much, much better: like a testament to pleasures shared and undiminishing, like the nearness of loves undispersed. It was a moment of my enfranchisement as a fan, a fan in the saving way I’ve long understand fandom to work, and I don’t know about you, or Keith Olbermann, or those fact-checking boys on the internet, but I’m gonna keep it with me like a memorized sonnet, like a heartlifting last sentence, like a love song coming up on shuffle.

 

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