You wouldn't think Derek Jeter would be the cause of any headaches for the New York Yankees. An 11-time All-Star, 1996 American League Rookie of the Year, presumptive first-round Hall of Famer. A .313 lifetime batting average with 236 home runs and 1,146 runs batted in. And, unless something goes drastically wrong, about to become the only player to accrue 3,000 hits for the Bronx Bombers.
But the expiration of his contract at the end of the 2010 season presented a problem for the team: What to do with him? Should they give a 37-year-old shortstop with diminishing skills the long-term contract he wants to end his career in the sacred pinstripes, or do they risk the enmity of their fans for allowing him to sign with another team? A Hobson's choice, to be sure.
Eventually, the Yankees compromised by giving him a shorter deal for beaucoup bucks. But when Jeter got off to a slow start, the haters couldn't wait to say "I told you so." There was even a recent front-page story about his decline in The New York Times. But a two-home run performance on Mothers' Day seemed to silence the critics --- for the time being. That's one of the things that's so intriguing about the timing of Ian O'Connor's THE CAPTAIN: The Journey of Derek Jeter. When he began the project a couple of years ago, did he perhaps expect Jeter would "relocate" or retire? Did he want to take advantage of what might be the popular figure's swan song? And when it didn't transpire that way, why did the publisher decide to push ahead, knowing there would be more to come?
Just prior to its release, THE CAPTAIN made headlines in the local tabloids, focusing on the frosty relationships between Jeter and a few of his teammates, most notably former "BFF" Alex Rodriguez. Leave it to the likes of the Post and Daily News to focus on one aspect in an otherwise near-perfect career to inflame the situation (and boost newspaper sales). Whether or not that issue is out of proportion to the rest of the book is irrelevant. In fact, it is precisely Jeter's goody-two-shoes persona that probably cries out for reviewers and sportswriters to find that one nugget of controversy.
The book is overwhelmingly complimentary, praising Jeter as a hard-working athlete, always trying to improve himself. He is respectful; he would call his manager "Mr. Torre," rather than more informal appellations; and he remains unfazed to a large extent by his celebrity status. (Of course, one can always fall on the "half full/half empty" school of interpretation. O'Connor would have the reader do a lot of reading between the lines.) Being a living legend isn't easy. Fans and employers expect nothing short of brilliance, and when they don't get it, the sniping begins, primarily in the form of shots that appear in the media. And who among us is ever thrilled by criticism?
Jeter, too, is not a saint. He has his moments of pique, where he shows annoyance at teammates who do not live up to his standards. O'Connor credits (blames?) him for having an unpopular player traded, but offers no hard evidence. In fact, if there's a knock on the narrative, it's the writer's frequent employment of innuendo. In the section "Note on the Authors Interviews and Sources," O'Connor acknowledges "piecing together the narrative" by "lean[ing] on scores of interviews with Jeter that I either conducted or participated in over the course of his fifteen-year career" (Jeter is now in his 17th season). Some media and sports pundits and reviewers have questioned the accuracy/fairness of this method of reportage; Jeter himself has offered a few complaints.
One almost wishes O'Connor had waited until Jeter retired for a more appreciative coda for one of the finest players of his generation. Despite its overall positive portrayal, as it stands, it comes across as obviously incomplete.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on May 24, 2011