For the past nine summers, I have spent my time at a place (sleepaway camp) as integral to my development as a human being as anything. The seven weeks of the baseball season I have repeatedly missed has slightly drawn me away from a game with dwindling popularity, overpriced concessions, a slow pace, and a lack of superstars. The camp, word-of-mouth newswire produced as many story-lines of suspensions in America's former pastime as it did of 'blockbuster' trades. My life and baseball, through ups and downs, has produced several constants. I've remained a picky eater with a passion for traveling to America's ballparks (where I usually eat chicken fingers) with my family (we've seen all but Atlanta, Kansas City, and Seattle). I'm still passionate about my writing and I've definitely remained a pizza aficionado, but life has definitely changed. How I treat people, what I want to do with my life, and more are no longer what they were when The King of Sports Blog was born in the middle of 6th grade. The one true constant from the way I stepped foot on this planet to when I board a plane to Austin, Texas to go to college is that Derek Jeter has shown the essence of a true leader in one, often dirt stained, pinstriped uniform.
Technology has altered the ideal vision of what a superstar athlete should be. Fantasy sports, television league passes, and social media have enabled a young basketball fan in Cleveland to idolize a big man out in Minnesota and then be able to actually reach out to him to change teams so that he could watch him play in person night in and night out. These innovations have put more pressure on athletes to be what Charles Barkley once said they are not: role models. The temptations of bright lights and big cities lure athletes into the tabloids and mid-market athletes to show their urge switch teams at the touch of a bright blue tweet button. And what values do parents hope their child's role models instill in their kids? One who has an image clean of mugshots and failed drug tests, bleeds the core leadership traits, and is loyal to his values and who he/she cares about. Derek Jeter was not born in any of the five boroughs, as if that was a prerequisite for loyalty to an organization. He was basically the one name that you knew wasn't linked to baseball's infamous asterisk era, but he was the only one you referred to when you said, "If that guy juiced, I'm never watching baseball again." For me, he was the only celebrity, after interviews and interviews, that left me speechless as he stood in front of me. And, outside of the belief that he gifted one night stands with a couple of autographed baseballs (which, to me, doesn't sound like too bad of an idea), Derek Jeter has been as pure as a glass of water, as pristine as a fresh out of the bag, Hanes white shirt, and as much of a leader as any of the commander-in-chiefs in American history.
But, like my childhood is with his retirement, the greater career of No. 2 is as good as over unless '04 Red Sox-esque magic comes to the Bronx for a playoff run like no other. Also over is the age of the true superstar. No other athlete will ever be in the same hemisphere as Derek Jeter. Don't even try.
Loyalty is an interesting concept and one absolutely required in order for whomever Sports Illustrated deems the "next Derek Jeter" to actually be so. Parity in sports makes it too simple for a team to survive after letting their superstar go to greener pastures (see: the St. Louis Cardinals). So-called "insiders" linking Player X to City A, B, C, and D tampers with loyalty because people are as prone to believing what they see in a Ken Rosenthal or Adam Schefter tweet as they are one of those "RIP to a perfectly healthy celebrity" trending topics (which was bizarrely common a few years ago). Kevin Durant's loyalty is already being tested...two summers before he could possibly flee the city he's been loyal to for his pro career thus far.
The thing is that it's more than loyalty. Jeter was a winner like no other with championships at every stage of his career, from his rookie season to the nascent of his decline. Jeter's true heart, shown through both full out dives into the front rows of Yankee Stadium to his devotion to his Take 2 Foundation, have catapulted him from a young kid from Kalamazoo to a cultural icon. These things sound so simple. Start a foundation, win some, don't screw up, and stay loyal to a team. But the upper echelon of core four American sports have barriers that get in the way of achieving the core four Jeter pillars nowadays. Parity, free agency, Deadspin, drugs, social media (which Jeter used as nobly as any athlete), and more. Specifically in American sports, there are a couple near-Jeters in the future of Big Four sports ranks:
Could be, but haven't/probably won't win enough: Andrew Luck, Mike Trout, Kevin Durant
Could have been, but already blew it: LeBron James
They might be Derek Jeters already, but nobody knows who they are: Hockey players
I started that list expecting a few ranks to come easily, but when you think of it, nobody else even comes to mind. A few guys in the same category are already over the hill like Peyton, Brady, and Duncan. Let's analyze.
First off, before you dispute Andrew Luck, a dominant Peyton Manning in Indy was able to propel himself into America's hearts in a small market. Luck is truly the genuine man you think he is. A well-spoken, Stanford grad with a fiery competitive spirit, Luck's main barrier from a Jeter-esque Mount Rushmore is of course rings. XXX amount of quarterbacks have won more than 1 Super Bowl; Jeter won 5 titles. The Colts may consistently make the playoffs, but getting over the hump to the Lombardi Trophy is so difficult. Classy: check. Clean: check. Lifelong Colt: possible, but, based on Peyton Manning's career, it might not be too necessary to be DJ). Great champion: doubtful.
The Angels' Millville Meteor is viewed as the closest thing to Major League Baseball's next Derek Jeter. Or at least that's who they're marketing him to be. He's viewed as a five tool, full out superstar with a great reputation and a career as bright as Mays (or a clean A-Rod). From personal encounters, Trout seems like a nice guy from a nice family. Actually, fun fact, I requested to play him in Words With Friends when he was in the minor leagues (I think I might have beaten in a game or two). But the same thing applies to how great of a winner he could be. The Angels have had great pitching, a couple of the game's best players (under bad contracts), but still haven't even gotten close with Trout. Now, this year, with a reloaded bullpen, the Angels stand a shot this year. They have time, but predicting the next Yankee-like dynasty is too difficult. But my hunch is that parity, like in the NFL, is too strong for Trout to go on a Jeter run. The Angels do have the payroll to spend like the Bombers did in Jeter's heyday, so who knows. Trout, who is already riding through his prime towards a great, Hall of Fame career, stands a shot, but the big question is does Trout need an All-Star lineup on the field and with the ladies (Jeter's ex-girlfriends include swimsuit model after swimsuit model, Jessica Alba, and Minka Kelly) to be the next Jeter?
Without performance enhancing drugs, who says Derek Jeter couldn't have been the best player in baseball? PEDs aren't rampant in the NBA yet (outside of Nick Calathes). Kevin Durant is not and might never be the best player in the NBA. Isn't that enough of a barrier to block him from achieving the cultural greatness of the Yankee shortstop? Durant, like Jeter, represents humble backgrounds (both guys have been extremely public in their affection for their parents), the soft-spoken sweetness needed to be a smart, clean role model, and exhibit dominance on the field. Here's the thing: Durant has yet to be a winner and Oklahoma City's window, with Russell Westbrook's knees and free agency looming looming over the Thunder like a dark cloud ready to strike, might be closing. Look at the last postseason where their team was so light on bench players that they relied on Reggie Jackson to play XX minutes and used a 6 man rotation late in the playoffs. This raises the possibility that ESPN is already hinting at: Durant walks, like the past two top free agents have, and makes his homecoming to join a young, deep Washington Wizards squad. Now, does going home equal loyalty? Not exactly. In his tear jerking MVP speech, Durant praised Oklahoma City and his teammates, especially Russell Westbrook, who he treated like a lifelong spouse. LeBron's homecoming was sweet, but it isn't as though we could just overlook that the best moments of his career came elsewhere, including his first title. Would winning in his native Baltimore be great for Durant's legacy? Yes, but it isn't comparable to Jeter. Parity isn't like it was in the '80s in the NBA though. Could a Wall-Beal-Durant-Porter-Gortat lineup in Washington win a title? Yes. Could they win any amount similar to Jordan or Jeter or even LeBron (gasp)? No way.
LeBron's two-edged sword of loyalty doesn't even need explaining. The Decision alone shows why he could never be Jeter. Moving on.
Durant. Give him a dominant roster like a Clemens plus the Core Four Yankees team and he could be up there with the greatest ever. He's my next Jeter pick, but I'm confident it won't happen. It won't happen in baseball, a sport as unpopular as ever as Americans want a sport where you don't have time to write an article of this length between innings. The sport won't draw with any star anytime soon. There is no next Derek Jeter. Maybe the responsibility is too much. "With great power comes great responsibility (to win many championships and not have a racy article on Deadspin)," said/implied a sporty version of Peter Parker's Uncle Ben. Derek Jeter was just special in an organization as special as any one in sports. Ruth ate and drank like a bum. Mantle too drank like one. Gehrig was an icon, but not the GOAT. Outside of New York, Pete Rose, the all-time hit leader, gambled away his place in history. Football's never had anything close to a Jeter. Basketball has had Russell, MJ, Bird and Magic, but their eras weren't the 21st century. Another Jeter will never be upon us. Face that fact and admire these last two months of number two.