It should have been a laugher. A formality. The most celebrated team leader of his generation versus his hobbled teammate, a glorified singles hitter who steals the occasional base, and a couple of other guys who don't matter. After being cruelly and inexplicably ignored by his fellow American League fans and players, it was a virtual certainty that when all the smoke had cleared, Derek Jeter, better known as The Face of Baseball, would emerge as the Last Man Standing.
But it wasn't to be. At the time, all that remained were plenty of questions, with precious few answers.
For me personally, it has been a week for pause and reflection. My first reaction to Podsednik's selection was one of numb grief. Afterward, my emotions moved into more unsettling territory, as I was overcome with an intense anger that profoundly frightened both me and my family. Soon enough, this led me toward acceptance -- an understanding of what baseball fans had done and why they had done it.
Finally, it was time for reflection. Baseball is an infallible game, that much is axiomatic. The joys of your home team's 9th inning walk-off homers and the crushing heartbreak of their bases-loaded strikeouts could never carry such emotional heft if baseball were a fallible game. One of us had made a mistake -- it was either me, or it was the game of baseball. And it had to be me.
All my logic was therefore false. It follows that everything I thought I knew about baseball was wrong. Therefore, the opposite of my previous thoughts had to be true. With this realization, I was euphoric once again, for I was on the way to recovering an understanding of the game of baseball. The perfect, unblemished game of baseball.
Alex Rodriguez, Jeter's much maligned teammate, is the greatest player in the game today. By being a bratty, selfish man-bitch, he improves his team immeasurably. His frosty demeanor stokes the five senses of everyone who plays with him, thereby raising their level of play. Jeter's level-headed, "team first" attitude casts a pall over his clubhouse, for a team that cannot play with emotion is a team that cannot win ball games. It's no wonder that the Yankees are struggling this year.
The game of baseball is constantly evolving, but one thing has always remained constant: each era is defined by its prominent players, not its most successful teams. This is because team dynasties are fairly rare, whereas colorful characters are always in abundance. Barry Bonds is one of the greatest players ever and his perpetually sour disposition says everything that his numbers can't, or won't. Mark McGwire may have lacked eccentricity, but he made up for it in spades with the persistent andro/steroid rumours, thereby cementing his place in baseball lore. Controversy is a surefire mark of a legendary player. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, whose Yankees have won six World Series under the watchful eye of his checkbook and his private investigators, would surely agree.
Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle aren't legends because of their long home runs and countless pennant victories. Mantle's legend was cemented by his unquenchable thirst for potent potables in addition to his thirst for expansion-era AL pitching. Ruth is fondly remembered today because his hunger for home runs was equal to his hunger for pussy and 18-egg omelettes. What does Jeter hunger for? "He hungers for nothing" remarked one former Yankee. "He dated Mariah Carey but wouldn't make a big deal of it because he refused to turn his personal life into tabloid fodder. He never said anything about her to the boys, either. It was like he didn't trust us. At the time, it really hurt our sense of team unity".
Jeter's style both on and off the field is one of cold efficiency. He only speaks out in the press when his team is struggling. He never says a word when the Yankees play well, but as soon as their quality of play slips, he's quoted in the papers, flatly saying "we need to play better". He's the players' equivalent of the worst type of sports fan, namely, the front runner -- a person who cheers when his team wins, and boos when they lose. Someone like Jose Lima is the opposite of Jeter in this regard. Lima's personality is constant, steady, and consistent. Whether he's throwing complete game playoff wins or contracting STD's in his spare time, he always behaves the same way. Lima is genuine. Jeter isn't real, he's a masquerader. Lima is a character. Jeter is an actor. The importance of such characters in baseball cannot be overstated. There's a reason that we remember Moe Drabowsky and Bobo Holloman, but have forgotten about Bob Feller and Hal Newhouser.
Jeter is so aloof that he calls his manager "Mr. Torre". "His pretentious formalism really got on everybody's nerves" said Arizona pitcher Javier Vasquez, who pitched one year (2004) with the Yankees. "When there is a dispute in the clubhouse, you need a leader that can relate to everyone and help people work out their problems. Who would want to confide in somebody who's so emotionally distant that he can't even call people by their first names?".
On the field, he's a bundle of wasted energy that can be easily mistaken for a man of hustle. "He runs hard down to first base with every at-bat", says E$PN broadcaster Dan Shulman, "but for what? David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez don't do that, and they have a lot more RBI's than Jeter does. If he spent less energy hustling down to first then he might have more energy left with which to swing the bat".
"And what about that face-first dive into the stands last year in Boston?" continued Shulman. "He could have smashed his head open. How would that have helped his team? It just goes to show that Jeter is famous for all the wrong reasons. Jim Edmonds makes three catches like that in nearly every game".
None of this should surprise anyone who has followed Jeter's career closely. He's been like this his entire life. Even in high school, his parents made sure he was home by 10 PM every night, thereby teaching the young man how to hate fun. His early curfew ensured that he would grow up without any cool friends, a reputation which has remained with him to this day as the black sheep of the Yankee clubhouse. His parents taught him the wrong lessons at the wrong time, and now, he's messed with Scott Podsednik at the wrong time. That is why, during this Tuesday's All-Star Game, I'll be cheering even louder than usual every time Podsenik is on first with second base open.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for E$PN The Magazine and a frequent contributor to Baseball Tonight.