Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit came just as the sport whose virtues he personifies is about to endure yet another public disgrace. Roger Clemens, one of Mr. Jeter’s former teammates on the great Yankee teams of the late 1990s, will soon find himself on trial in a court of law for the crime of lying to Congress about his alleged use of steroids during his time with the Toronto Blue Jays and the Yankees. The Clemens trial, as did Bobby Bonds’s trial on charges relating to steroid use, will remind sports fans of a sinister time in the life of the national pastime, a time when management and fans alike chose to look the other way while athletes grew bigger and bulkier before their very eyes.
Derek Jeter came of age during a time now referred to as baseball’s “steroids era.” It was a time of astounding home run records, achieved by players with thick forearms and broad shoulders—the result, we were led to believe, of their commitment to fitness. Of course, we now know otherwise. All those records are now regarded as false, the product of cheating on a vast scale. A sport that revels in its history and that is custodian to some of the athletic world’s best-known individual achievements has been left to figure out how to account for fallen heroes and their tainted achievements.
Sports historians, however, will not be able to dismiss the steroids era with broad generalities about those who made their reputations during a tainted time. That’s because they will have to account for those who went about the business of excellence the right way. They will have to account for, among others, Derek Jeter, whose legacy of achievement and performance under pressure is no more awe-inspiring than his dignity, class and integrity.
No other Yankee has recorded as many hits as Derek Jeter has. Given the transitory nature of the sport, it is unlikely that his feat will be outdone any time soon. The Yankee captain has been a Yankee lifer and will remain so until he calls it a career.
But the measure of Derek Jeter’s importance goes beyond the record book, and even beyond the five World Series rings he has won. It goes beyond, too, his personal highlight reel—the dive into the box seats to snag a foul ball, the famous flip play at home plate and even the dramatic home run for his 3,000th hit.
Derek Jeter’s importance, as a player, as a Yankee, as a New Yorker, is as a symbol of all those qualities some believe have been lost forever in the hypercommercial, hypercompetitive world of professional sports in the 21st century. He has played by the rules, he has been loyal to his fan base, and he has managed to do the right thing at the right time.
He is a refutation of our most cynical thoughts. For that, more than anything else, we owe him thanks.