Tuesday, October 21, 2014

What we really learn from Jeter. It's not what you think.

Barely had the giddy anticipation resolved into its storybook Stadium ending than the realization hit the shortstop's legions of worshipers and his (few) remaining haters alike: This was indeed the only possible last act for Derek Sanderson Jeter, No. 2. The one difference between the worshipers and the haters was that for the latter group, the insight came with a grudging resignation that also reduces to a kind of worship. Re2pect. That Stadium ending was, without a doubt, Jeterian. The adjective was coined some time ago to recognize the man's seeming ability to bring about thrilling Deus ex machina plot twists that even a third-rate Hollywood script doctor would laugh off as “too contrived!”

A while later, after the last of the insipid post-game interview questions had been asked (with a note of wonder) and answered (with a note of impatience), cultural soothsayers began distilling for us The Meaning of Derek Jeter—not for the first time, of course, but now with a fully bookended appreciation of the man's oeuvre. The talk was of “seizing the moment,” “poise under fire,” “knowing how to win,” “wanting it," "wanting it more than the next guy.” Being the master of one's fate. One would've thought that Jeter had choreographed his entire career, down to its most implausible detail, by sheer exercise of will: as if, in some baseball-specific variant of Heisenberg, reality was changed by the introduction of Jeter.

Surely to fans, and now to countless others as well, Derek Jeter is less man than metaphor. But lost in the overwrought myth making is the real lesson—which is quite opposite the one we've been sold, and then resold, and then sold one last time (set to music) in all those heartwarming retrospective commercials. The career of Derek Jeter is in reality a crash course in man's actual, decidedly more passive relationship with his environment. It's a lesson that's surely more valid than the faux empowerment peddled by our ubiquitous merchants of infinite hope. And in its own quiet way, it's a lesson that may be more reassuring. That final charmed inning at Yankee Stadium, you see, was literally the only possible denouement for Derek. It happened because it had to. As is also true of every minute of every day in the lives of the 48,613 fans who were in attendance that Thursday night, the millions more watching at home...and all the rest of us mere mortals.

It happened, like everything else in life, because there was no other possibility. 

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For starters, spectacularity demands as a prerequisite the context for spectacularity. There is no rising to an occasion that does not exist.

Think of the cooperation that Jeter's ninth-inning heroics demanded from circumstances that Jeter himself could never have foreseen or orchestrated, unless we adjourn our discussion to the realm of the supernatural and also grant Jeter, in addition to his observed skills, the power of telekinesis. The comeback against the Orioles required that a reliable closer (who to that point had allowed five home runs all season) surrender a pair of long balls in a single inning, the second of them with two out. A single homer with the bases empty would've left the Yanks up a run and in no need of last-minute theatrics from Jeter or anyone else. A third blast would've put the Orioles up a run, thus changing the entire complexion of the Yanks' half of the inning. In other words, for Jeter to have his moment, the Yankee closer needed to do pretty much exactly what he did, no less and no more. Then the Yankee leadoff hitter needed to reach base and get moved to second, in position to be delivered by Jeter's single—which, had it been a few feet to the right or left, as easily could've occurred with just the tiniest shift in the operative physics, would've been out number two.

Other historic milestones in the Jeter legend can be similarly deconstructed:

The flip. The outfield throw had to be wildly errant, missing both cutoffs—but not so far off line that it was also beyond Jeter's maximum range. (And yes, folks, even the great Derek Jeter had a maximum range. He didn't salvage every wild throw in his 20 seasons in the Bigs, did he?) Nonetheless, had the runner been a tad slower, the tag at home wouldn't have been as dramatic, and had the runner been a tad faster, he would've been safe—as he might have been anyway, had replay then existed to validate the outcome.

The dive. For starters, that particular pitch had to be fouled into an area necessitating an uncommonly good play—and yet, again, it could not be fouled out of the field of play altogether. If the pitcher had thrown an inside fastball instead of an outside breaking pitch, Jeter might have caught the pop-up standing in his tracks at short. If the batter had been a righty instead of a lefty, we might today be waxing poetic about first-sacker Tino Martinez.

The Jeffrey Maier home run. It was Jeter who, in the opening game of the 1996 ALCS, hit the game-tying drive notoriously tampered with by 12-year-old Maier. Save for the boy's interference, outfielder Tony Tarasco quite possibly makes the catch, thus removing one of the earliest ingredients from the Captain Clutch meme. It bears noting that Maier was there that fateful Wednesday only because the previous day's rainout resulted in a make-up game; the scheduling change made an extra ticket available for the boy. Did Jeter summon the rain (and/or the ticket), too?

Our analysis of cause-and-effect can be regressed farther to the events that had to come together to place Derek Jeter in the one venue where his name would be intoned for all those years by the immortal Bob Sheppard. In that pivotal 1992 free-agent draft, the Houston Astros improbably became the first of five teams to pass on Jeter, despite his being named USAToday's High School Player of the Year in 1991. Houston mega-scout and Hall of Fame pitcher Hal Newhouser had been so fulsome in singing Jeter's praises, and was so incensed at his team's rebuff (the Astros drafted Phil Nevin), that he took early retirement the day after the draft. The Yankees almost passed on Jeter as well, concerned about wasting a first-round pick on a kid who might spurn their offer in order to attend college. But Yankee scout Dick Groch was more persuasive than Newhouser had been, prophetically assuring higher-ups, “The only place this player is going is Cooperstown.”

Even so, late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was sufficiently dubious about Jeter's readiness for such a key role prior to his rookie season (1996) that “The Boss” hatched a plan to trade away Mariano Rivera to secure veteran help at shortstop. Chew on the implications of that one deal alone, had cooler heads not talked Steinbrenner out of it. Would a different player patrolling short, at least for a time that season, have denied Jeter the first jewel in his crown, his Rookie-of-the-Year award? More importantly, without Rivera at the back end of the bullpen, one cannot help but wonder how less halcyon the days might have been in the Bronx over the ensuing decade and more. How many of those five World Series rings would Jeter's trophy cabinet still have in it? Aside from the incomparable Mo, Jeter had to be surrounded with other quality players: the three additional members of the so-called Core Four and the rotating cast of heroes kept in constant supply by Steinbrenner's thick checkbook.

Sans all the rings, Jeter still might have posted superlative numbers, but his career just wouldn't have the same symbolic gravitas had he posted those numbers playing for an also-ran. (Think: Ernie Banks.)

Also figuring in our narrative are events occurring long before Jeter arrived in the Bronx. It matters that young Derek grew up loving baseball more than football or hockey. Loving a sport is not, after all, something one chooses to do—no more than one chooses to love a woman or a flavor of ice cream. No one disputes that Jeter had the right stuff: He was unflappable, stoic, determined, indefatigable in pursuit of victory. And, there was that legendary work ethic: Not a natural defensive standout, he had to practice hard at the skills that eventually made him a Gold Glover. But again, were these ennobling character traits voluntary in the customary sense of the term, or were they more like his love of baseball or your love of chocolate ice cream? If Jeter achieved what he did because, essentially, it's who he was, then showering him with accolades is not unlike shouting putdowns at the person whose physical disability renders him unable to compete at a high level.

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This is why there is no universality in the empowering message of Derek Jeter. There may be a frangible lesson about striving—assuming one has the inner ability to strive—but to imply that we can all be Derek Jeter through the application of great effort is like implying that a squirrel can be an ocelot by merely trying harder. A lazy person is a lazy person, until/unless something, usually external, makes him less so. In the meantime, his behavior evinces laziness.

Granted, we hear that as a child, Jeter's parents made him sign a contract each year that set forth acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, and we credit that for his much-heralded personal discipline and impeccable behavior. Still, we all know kids who are “brought up right” and don't turn out very well, because the internal mechanisms are lacking: the predisposition to be serious-minded and disciplined. By nature, you must be able to be nurtured. That tractability was simply present in young Derek Jeter, in the same way that he had those striking green eyes and the million-dollar smile that would one day help him win him all those endorsement deals.  

Ty Cobb. At .366 lifetime, he came closest to can.
There is a knee-jerk tendency to recoil at this kind of thinking; I feel it too. We love our inspirational heroes and are not fond of demystification. We want so badly to believe that through great effort, Jeter was somehow able to “stretch,” to reach the unreachable star, because if that is so then perhaps we too can trascend. For similar reasons we want to find significance in the fact that his mother, Dorothy, forbade the use of the word can't in the Jeter household; we nod and tell ourselves that that is how Jeter came to be Jeterian. That's just silly. Derek Jeter posted a career batting average of can't. Like other great ballplayers, Jeter failed to get a hit seven times out of 10. If the absence of can't from his vocabulary is what explains his success, then why were there so many cases where he...couldn't? Why did journeymen pitchers sometimes get the best of him? Quite simply, Jeter was unable to surmount the indigenous realities of a pursuit—hitting—wherein greatness is measured in the ability to mitigate out-and-out catastrophe, such that a failure rate of 70% places one in the pantheon of immortals. He did what was doable. For him.
.310—not bad, but hardly a refutation of

Moreover, this young man who, to hear some tell it, was possessed of a mystical “will to win” that enabled him to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat nonetheless participated in well over 1000 Yankee losses. I suppose one is to assume that on those 1000-or-so dates, Jeter awoke beset by some bug that left his will to win compromised...

Even when it came to that climactic game-winning hit, it's not as if Jeter said to himself, "Oh, here's a nice little pitch, I think I'll hit it through that hole on the right side, just out of the reach of the second baseman...” In contrast, the hit was the product of decades of finely honed muscle memory guiding an inside-out swing that by now is so uniquely Jeter's that he might've trademarked it. It was a purely physical process that—as noted—could've easily gone awry had bat met ball with just a fractionally different angle.

For Deter Jeter, the remarkable things that fell into place did so because they were dictated at every turn by a series of antecedent or coincident events, known or unknown. We live in a physical world—the body is physical, the mind is part of the body; it runs according to established principles of cause-and-effect that apply even to beloved shortstops who “Do it their way.”

If we were of such a mind, and we knew all of the variables that came into play, we could regress the causation of Derek Jeter back much farther, and even farther back than that, waaay back. We could talk about how there had to be such a thing as baseball, and America, and his parents had to meet in just such a way, and so forth. We could regress Derek to the very beginning of time...except, that's when people start sighing and rolling their eyes (if you aren't already).

But, you ask, can't we learn to be better, more disciplined? (I'm hoping you're still engaged enough to ask that.) Yes. If we can. But not if we can't, and not before we're ready, and not before the circumstances congeal to produce our readiness. We cannot be affected by any external force that we do not have the capacity to be affected by. There is no such thing as “stretching” or “stepping up,” as the concepts are commonly framed by the devout Sportsthinkers and merchants of self-improvement. You are always doing what you can do, the best and the worst, at any given moment .

Therein lies the greatest message of Derek Jeter. We will all lead lives that by definition are the best and worst they can be. It is possible for you to do better than you're doing now, but that result has already been factored into your inevitable outcome; the circumstances that will make it happen are already under way, by whatever inscrutable interaction of internal and external forces. It is not possible for you to do better than you can do, better than you were "meant to" do. Period.

Sure, we all want to be Derek Jeter. And you know what? In a sense, we all are. So enjoy the ride.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

And your host writes something almost uplifting?

I don't know how many of you are Family Circle subscribers/readersI suspect that's not an especially strong title among SHAMbloggers, winkbut my essay in tribute to my relationship with my grandson, Jordan, appears in the November issue, on newsstands beginning this weekend.

Kudos to the very talented Executive Editor Darcy Jacobs, whose savvy/gentle guidance helped me improve the piece markedly...in large part by tightening it. (File under, Why We All Need Editors, Chapter 758.)

The story starts on page 82 if you just want to browse it in the supermarket checkout line (though you can bring the entire issue home for $1.99...and there are some killer recipes). By the way, if you do read and enjoy it, think about taking a moment to send a note of appreciative feedback to the magazine. You'll help keep the personal essay/memoir genre alive for those of us who've made a fair percentage of our living from the medium through the years...and for my wide-eyed students who are just starting out. ... For the record, this is 49th such memoir I've sold since the first one (also my very first published piece) ran in Harper's in January 1982. Alas, as many of you who dabble will also know, the (well-paying) markets for such writing have dried up considerably over the past decade or so. Now it's all about service/"news-you-can-use." That original Harper's piece ran at 4500 words; I've written a half-dozen others at that length or longer. But magazine space is at a premium nowadays. This one was really pushing it at around 1100.

Monday, September 29, 2014

And the beat(ing) goes on.

Another writer bites the dust for the grave sin of musing on Feminist Nation's conflating of drunkenness and empowerment.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

'Together we can end the horror of unwanted kissing!'

"A kiss is still a kiss..."
I'm not backtracking on my vow to be "done with" women's issues; I'm simply going to let syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg* do my dirty work for me. I commend to you his op-ed exposing the bogus stats that underlie today's "sexual-assault crisis" and the White House's frangible "It's On US" initiative. Here's one quick quote about the "rape epidemic" that supposedly victimizes one in five women on college campuses:

The dubious stat, writes Goldberg:
"comes from tendentious Department of Justice surveys that count 'attempted forced kissing' and other potentially caddish acts that even the Justice Department admits 'are not criminal.' ... According to a [DOJ] survey, more than half the respondents said they didn't report the assault because they didn't think 'the incident was serious enough to report.' "
I haven't vetted Goldberg's facts but I tend to think he would not go public with this kind of debunkery if he weren't on sufficiently solid ground.
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* Goldberg, of course, is a conservative stalwart, and not the kind of social theorist with whom I'd normally find much in common nowadays. But I deem it significant that today's social currencies increasingly have put me in league with the forces from "the other side"and I don't think I'm alone in that regard. I'm telling you, people, whether it's women or blacks or illegal immigrants, this "entitlement overreach" is turning off a lot of us who used to be sympathetic. I know that I should vote for Hillary, assuming she runswhich she willbut I gotta tell you, she worries me. I don't think I could stomach four or eight more years of the prevailing sociopolitical ethos. Barack and his attorney general have been grievous disappointments on that score.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Why I'm done with Feminists and their causes.

I'll begin with an apology, a sort of journalistic "guilty with an explanation." This is not going to be the insightful, impeccably researched post I promised (to those who cared) a few weeks back; I made that promise at the height of our lively exchange on my initial post about rape, which to date has drawn nearly 100 comments*. Instead I give you what follows, which I hope does not smack too much of an unbecoming rhetorical martyrdom.

Read on before you dismiss this as histrionic.
I looked at this topicalong with related topics in the genders waras a debate. But it's not a debate. A true debate presupposes earnest engagement on both sides, a spirit of sincere intellectual inquiry that admits the possibility of persuasion via evidence and argument. There is no interest in that kind of engagement on the other side. That's why no amount of factual material, no matter how impeccable, would make a difference here. The facts don't matter. Logic doesn't matter. Sometimes, even the plight of actual women doesn't matter, as long as the ideal is upheld. Don't get me wrong, there may be engagement among regular contributors like Ron and Elizabeth and Jenny and even perhaps my persistent Anon from the aforementioned post. But there is no such interest among self-styled Feminists (and their enablers/lackeys), who enjoy a stranglehold on American Thought Leadership in media, academia and, increasingly, government. (And wait till Hillary's sworn in.)

To them this is more of a war, a war in which no prisoners are taken. A holy war, one might say in these ISIS-inflected times.

Oddly, it was the Ray Rice episode that drove this home for me. The very Feminist voices who now wanted Rice held fully accountable for his drunken rage in that elevator were the same ones who, just weeks ago, were screaming at me that women cannot be held responsible for the sex they have when drunk. Even if you want to say that protection of women from predatory men outweighs the need to apply consistent logic, that fallback argument flows from the "weaker sex" image that Feminists also reject out of hand. But when you're waging war, you see, you don't worry about such contradictions. You just try to win. You try to vanquish your enemies.

So it was that Feminist Nation set out to vanquish me.Like the religious zealots they are, critics of my column on rape sought to decapitate me professionally. (And yes, please, know that I am being "writerly." I do not in any way mean to imply that what I've gone through is equivalent to what those poor guys in that desert endured. Jesus.) Understand that these are not garden-variety trolls we're talking about, but highly placed Feminist insiders who write well-read columns or run esteemed law firms. Several of these dear women went straight to the dean of students at Lehigh in an effort to undo my mutually successful three-year relationship with the school. One critic suggested to my dean via Twitter that I was "secretly rooting for the rapists"; in subsequent tweets she speculated what that might suggest about my own treatment of women, and referenced the liability implications of keeping such an obvious degenerate on staff. "I know I would not be comfortable with my daughter in his class," she opined. (Another critic used my LinkedIn profile as a road map to major publications for which I've worked; she wrote blistering emails to top editors explaining why a reprobate like me should not be allowed to soil their pages. She threatened a more organized letter-writing initiative, a boycott and other sanctions.)

I do not know if this campaign succeeded. I do know that I have not been invited back to Lehigh to teach in the springthis, after having fairly specific discussions about my proposed coursework with my most immediate contact, Lehigh's dean of journalism, a few weeks before all this blew up. The dean of journalism is a prince of a fellow but like most folks in academia, he takes his orders from upstairs. Although again, I can't say for sure that any such orders existed. He presented entirely mundane and bureaucratic reasons for withdrawing the offer he'd extended just weeks earlier.

Think of the irony, though: If a liberal-arts education is about anything at all, shouldn't it be about the application of critical thinking to life's "givens" and orthodoxies? Shouldn't it be about subjecting dogmatism to the crucible of classroom analysis? Shouldn't one of the critical thinker's foremost goals be to deconstruct political correctness? That's what I always thought. I guess I can consider myself educated now. 
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* or about 50 comments (exclusive of my own replies) from at least a dozen different contributors.