Derek Jeter has been uncanny in at least two ways.
He's engineered an iconic baseball career that will send him to Cooperstown at Acela-speed once he retires Sunday at the end of the last 2014 regular season game. (He plays his final nine innings at Yankee Stadium on Thursday night.)
And he's built for himself an Olympian image. Jane Leavy, author of biographies on Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle, puts it this way: "That Jeter has managed to control the conversation about him is as much of an accomplishment in this media-saturated world as anything he's done on a baseball field."
Sure, Jeter has fans; he also has devotees — and they range across the human life span.
Earlier this month, the mom of two-year-old Odys from Park Slope sat him in front a Yankees game on TV and, with little prompting, got him to chant, "De-rek Jee-ter!," like a grizzled bleacher bum. (Click the player to hear Odys in his ultra-adorable boy-glory.) In that same week, the dean of American baseball writers, 94-year-old Roger Angell, published a farewell ode to Jeter in The New Yorker.
And several days later, as I interviewed Leavy, came another uncanny moment. She's a fan of baseball and baseball players so she took it upon herself to extemporize from her ingrained memory of Jeter's swing, which she acutely described as the product of his "idiosyncratic talent and gesture."
"He steps to the plate with his back right foot anchored to the box," said Leavy.
As she spoke, an echo of Angell came through her words.
Angell: "The left foot wide open, out of the box until the last moment."
Leavy: "His bat tucked in his armpit."
Angell: "The between-pitches bat tucked up in his armpit."
Leavy: "And then, fleetingly, with his right arm, he holds it up to the umpire and the catcher, as if to say, 'Wait. Wait.'"
Angell: "The cop-at-a-crossing right hand ritually lifted astern until the foot swings shut."
Leavy: "To me, that gesture speaks to a kind of balance and preparation, and the ability to repeat a motion again and again over 20 years in the Major Leagues. But more so, it speaks to a control of a moment and a body and a motion. And that's what defines Jeter to me more than anything: control. Control of extraneous motion. Control of errant locker room quotes. People ridicule him for being vanilla and for never saying anything but it's quite an accomplishment in this era of cell phones and instant everything."
We love certain sports heroes because they are titanically talented but their flawed natures make them seem like us. Mickey Mantle. Babe Ruth. And then there are those players who are grace incarnate: their ease and consistency at play seem like an extension of their virtuous cores. Joe DiMaggio. Derek Jeter. They appeal to our aspirations.
That image may not be true — it's certainly more complicated than we know — but when it's gone, and you're a fan, it's hard not to miss it.