September 30, 2014

SUSSER | Being Publicly Private: An Ode To Jeter

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Most people get a watch and a pat on the back after 20 years of service to a company. If they happen to be retiring, maybe a party too. Forty-something-year-old employees will speak of their co-workers work ethic and legacy in the office. The lucky retiree will gloat about the Florida condo where they’ll be spending their golden years and offer sage advice to the younger workers. Maybe Mike the IT guy will drink a little too much, making for funny office chatter in the ensuing weeks. If the retiree happens to be high up on the company ladder, then this retirement party could be less of a forgettable occasion and more of an opportunity for the business; a chance for the executives to re-evaluate where they are and where they want to be moving forward. But if this retiree is truly unparalleled, crucial to the fabric of one of the largest cities in America, then this party could be all these things and more — a solidification of their legacy, a chance to reflect and maybe a means for the company to divert attention away from recent downward trends. I’m talking, of course, about Derek Jeter.

I may have pledged in my first column to refrain from speaking of this sports icon. I may have an unhealthy obsession with him and the Yankees. But, upon reevaluation, I see this retirement as less about Jeter and baseball and more about how we view the athletes and celebrities we cherish most. While we could analyze the significance of his statistical contributions to the sport for hours on end, it’s probably more interesting to look at our image of this relatively private athlete throughout the course of his career and upon retirement.

Derek Jeter was a constant presence in my childhood and that of countless other New Yorkers. He took the field for the first time as we said our first words. During our first Little League game, we mimicked his jump-throw in the hole. After 9/11, we watched him and the Yankees as a respite from all the mayhem in the world. During our first year of college, we watched him struggle through injury. Any college student from the tri-state area who considers sports even a peripheral component of their upbringing would consider Derek Jeter (or Derek Je-TAH when introduced to the batters box) a fundamental component of their idea of a professional athlete. When I was in the second grade, one of the first books to get real estate on my bookshelf was his autobiography — The Life You Imagine. In it, he speaks of his commitment to doing right, refraining from drugs and alcohol and never losing sight of his goals. With images of his straight-A report cards, the book reinforces the public image he has built throughout his career — a guy who realized his childhood dream and stayed out of trouble in the process.

To be honest, I had very little knowledge of Jeter’s private life during his tenure as shortstop — something slightly unnerving. I knew he had a charity foundation. His girlfriends made every hormonal teenager gawk. But that was it.

Increasingly, the public feels they have a right to access the personal lives of the celebrities they admire. When they hear of a scandal, they latch on like a clingy girlfriend and never let go. Tabloids have always been known to feed our voyeuristic desires. But in an age of a public with unprecedented technological capacity, we have begun to leverage our superior computer skills to access the private comings and goings of the icon du jour. Why is it that we have such compelling urges to peer into their lives?

We as a society have given these celebrities and sports stars a privilege. And this privilege sets up an implicit exchange. In return for all the riches, the vacations, the hot models — stemming from the mass appeal of their profession — we get to live vicariously through them. We “own” their private lives in a sense. So, paparazzi stalk them on their private vacations. Elevator video footage looks on from a bird’s eye view (especially in Atlantic City casinos) as their every movement is tracked. Invariably, many of these individuals will have a scandal come to light. Giving any person an ungodly amount of money and tracking their every movement is bound to produce some delinquency.

While the public seems to have such a stronghold on the private lives of so many stars, Derek Jeter is not one of them. His ability to establish a clear boundary between his personal and Yankee sphere is anomalous. For years, the press has frustratingly dealt with trite conjecture about focusing on the next win. And subsequently, the public has only known Jeter through the information they have had access to — interviews, on field behavior and statistical contributions to the team. Few impressions could be made about his character that were unfavorable. So, as he remained a steady presence in New York, he eventually came to represent everything that was right about baseball. And during the reflection inherent to retirement (see first paragraph) he became a cultural icon.

The privacy that Jeter has maintained is special. It gave all Yankee fans, baseball fans and New Yorkers, a chance to take what they saw in his on-field behavior, mannerisms and work ethic and construe it into a personal idealized impression of the person they wanted him to be. No private information was needed. And this created a special relationship between each and every person who valued him as a Yankee. So, when Jeter choked back tears as he took the field for the final time last Thursday, a whole generation of individuals choked back tears with him. No statistical measure can ever record what he publicly and privately brought to the City of New York.

Philip Susser is a junior in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at [email protected]. An Ithaca State of Mind appears on alternate Wednesdays this semester.