Monday, May 9, 2011


Why can't we allow our superstar athletes simply to age gracefully and exit the stage with their pride and dignity in tact? Why the incessant probing; why the ravenous obsession to pinpoint the game, the season, the year in which the player's skills eroded, his reflexes dulled, his luster faded, he will not again duplicate the mastery his performance once displayed?

Of the 12 scouts or officials contacted, none thought Jeter would approach his old self. – New York Post, May 8, 2011

Of course, through the years, one learns that, from the pack of reporters who cover baseball, not to expect much in the way of independent thought, seasoned wisdom, or imaginative empathy. Perpetual deadlines, exhausting travel schedules, a twenty-four media cycle’s insatiable appetite for content, and a journalistic marketplace so ravaged by competition that the lowest common denominator rules; all conspire to precipitate, night in and night out, the same bumptious questions, the same hackneyed debates, the same one-dimensional narrative. Is the Captain mired in a prolonged slump or is this, at thirty-seven, what age hath wrought?

Perhaps, the question persists because the obvious answer satisfies neither the ambitious reporter nor the anxious fan. A definitive answer, that it, awaits 2011’s conclusion and perhaps, 2012’s as well. Recall the flock of vultures circling David Ortiz after he floundered in 2009 and struggled through the first months of 2010. How many predators had stalked still vital (and lethal) prey? By 2010's conclusion, Ortiz had proved the obituaries premature.

For as often as the scriveners invoke baseball's exalted tradition, history rarely informs their commentary unless they have a moral ax to grind. Which consists, more often than not, of a quibble with some player's deviation from their own provincial narrow code of personal decorum: Player X, that is, dared to breach his time-honored responsibility as a social role model. No, the Pride of the Yankees, says Bill, would never have squired strippers around Toronto. The Yankee Clipper, says Joel, would never have resorted to artificial performance enhancers. No, the Sultan of Swat, says Wally, would never never never have placed his interest above the team by refusing demotion in the lineup. To mine a pearl of wisdom Justice Byron "Whizzer" White, himself a former professional athlete, unearthed many decades ago, "the deeply rooted traditions" of any institution are arguable. More often than not, they reflect less objective fact than the orthodoxy of their arbiter.

Admire the irony though. Only yesterday these self-same arbiters were preoccupied with condemning, reviling, and ostracizing Alex Rodriguez for ingesting magic elixirs designed to prolong his career and to preserve his stellar talent and prolific productivity on into his early 40’s? [1]

Today, the mob pursues the mid-30's superstar once celebrated precisely because he shunned the Wellspring of Youth to which so many of his contemporaries succumbed. Listen carefully enough during the post-game press conference though and you can hear reverberate through the clubhouse an echo of the voyeuristic malice, morbid curiosity, and voracious bloodlust that once pursued A-Rod.

“Joe, we’re now 30 games into the season, when is it time to drop Jeter in the lineup?”

A question the manager deftly skirts for yet the fifteen time this week, “Our priority is winning, Joel. We’ll do anything necessary to help the team accomplish its goal.”

Sure, Girardi's practiced platitude has defused the latest foray, but the manager knows that he can't repel the slavering mob indefinitely. What with the radio jackals baying and the ESPN mouths driveling and the press corps, at long last, tasting blood, the Captain’s Teflon armor won’t hold forever. If the crowd turned on Mantle, the Yankees have to know, Jeter's aura won't save him either. This history the moral scriveners know all too well.

For in the gloaming they can hear the swans warbling for Mr. November, and in the clubhouse they can spy the Captain’s “bleeding drops of reds.” No voice sings to the gallantry of aging naturally and no Stadium cheers indignities born with grace. The Guardians of the Diamond have come to watch Age make mortals of legends and to administer last rites. They come to bear witness that however many millions earned, however many starlets bed, however many records broken, Jeter suffers like the rest of us.

For one inarguable national tradition does endure. Americans prefer their heroes dead.

[1] Never mind that cheating the aging process antedates even our national pastime as an American tradition. Ponce De Leon went searching for a Fountain of Youth five hundred years ago. What middle-aged man who swallows Viagra; what post-menopausal woman who injects Botox; what college student who pops un-prescribed Ritalin; what aging stage actress or senescent rock star who “get by with a little help from their [Benzedrine] friends”; what American possibly could begrudge McGuire, Bonds, Clemens, and Rodriguez for taking drugs (legal, extralegal, or illegal) to enhance their performance, to lift their team, and to cling to the uniform and the spotlight for as long as their bodies would carry them?