My computer has been undergoing repairs this week, hence the light blogging. I will be fully back online as of Monday. Since Jeter just capped his career at Yankee Stadium with, dare I say, a Jeterian denouement, I wanted to comment on Keith Olbermann’s much-discussed rant.
In a way, what Olbermann’s is saying shouldn’t be as controversial as it is. He didn’t say Jeter sucked. Indeed, KO deemed The Captain Hall-of-Fame worthy. You can be both a very good player *and* overrated. It’s on this already pretty narrow sliver of rhetorical real estate that Olbermann was setting up shop. He went after Jeter’s defense. Join the club. He said that, at this point in his career, Jeter’s a bad player. No serious argument there.
Virtually every adherent to performance-based analysis of baseball players – broadly speaking, the sabermetric community – thinks Jeter is overrated. Which raises the question – once everyone thinks you’re overrated, can you still qualify as overrated?
It’s true that the average fan probably thinks less about WAR, OBA, OPS+ and FRAR and such than do the Olbermanns (or Weilers) of the world. But that’s OK. Not everyone needs to have their experience of sports mediated through advanced statistics (my view of folks who cover sports for a living but ignore serious research on player performance is, of course, not so charitable).
If Olbermann is, by implication, directing his criticism of Jeter at the baseball media, it’s fair to argue that they spend too much time focusing on intangibles and on things like whether a player answers a reporter’s questions politely than perhaps they should. But Olbermann was vague in identifying the group that gives Jeter too much credit for his play on the field. He started his Jeter broadside with a pretty egregious straw man. He showed Jorge Posada calling Jeter the best Yankee ever, “for me.” Posada, of course, was Jeter’s best friend on the team for many years. Teammates tend to stand up for one another. If Posada’s opinion is supposed to be a stand in for the sporting public, or the sports media, that’s pretty weak. Anecdotally, anyway, I’ve heard a lot of sports commentators weigh in on Jeter this week and *none* of them said Jeter was the best Yankee ever. The most charitable said he was perhaps a top-5 Yankee. Plenty of others doubted whether he was in the top ten. And these were folks who all think very highly of No. 2.
In February, ESPN’s David Schoenfield tackled the question of whether Jeter is overrated by concluding that he might be both overrated and underrated. Olbermann gave no weight in his musings to Jeter’s signature moments. If you’re a general manager trying to construct an all-time team to compete in a league of immortals, perhaps that makes sense. But to return to an earlier point, it’s not how most fans experience sports. Olbermann is right that Jeter’s post-season career is heavily skewed to his early career. He’s only one won ring since 2000. Most of his big post-season moments – including the “flip” – happened a long time ago. But those moments are the things fans remember, the heart of what makes sports feel meaningful to people.
How much “credit” should Jeter get for how he comported himself on and off the field, how he apparently kept his nose and his veins clean through a twenty year period in which lots of athletes ran into trouble with the law and so many baseball stars in particular used banned substances to boost their performances? I don’t know. There’s no accounting for taste, as they say. But in that vein, at a certain point it’s silly to try to tell people why they shouldn’t have found so much joy in watching a guy play baseball for as long as Jeter did. In a hard-to-define, but hard-to-deny way, he gave the fans their money’s worth, year after year. OK, so Jim Thome and Adrian Beltre are higher on the WAR list. That’s a fit topic for things like Hall of Fame voting, and roster construction and so on. And I do think Olbermann’s is strongest in criticizing Jeter (and the franchise) for his having batting second all year in 2014, when he’s now a marginal major league hitter. This is especially true when the Yankees were facing an uphill climb to secure a playoff spot for much of the season and needed to wring every run they could out of an offensively-challenged team.
But mostly what I hear people saying about Jeter, with some exceptions, is that they just loved watching the guy play. So sue them. For most folks, what else is sports for?