We are in the midst of the announcements for baseball’s post-season awards, including the Most Valuable Player for each league. The Yankees’ Derek Jeter is the favorite for the American League MVP. He had near-career best offensive stats and won another Gold Glove for his defensive play at shortstop (although the Gold Glove selection process has always been questionable; it seems far too political and based on reputation – see Buster Olney’s comments on November 3, for those with access). But Jeter’s case rests primarily on his leadership and clutch play, which kept New York in the pennant race while the starting pitching struggled and injuries sidelined three key position players. Voters sometimes give what is in effect a lifetime achievement award, to acknowledge a player like Jeter who plays at a consistently high level but whose individual statistics will never compel his MVP selection in any particular year.
All of the above persuaded me that Jeter should certainly receive the award. Until I read Phil Taylor’s comments. The unhappy saga of Jeter’s teammate, Alex Rodriguez, is well known. A-Rod is a brilliant but insecure talent who has not stood up well to the bright lights and elevated expectations of the New York fans and media. But Taylor makes a serious point. Whatever the merits of A-Rod’s decision to become a Yankee – I always thought it was a mistake – Jeter has always treated his high-profile teammate with evident public disdain. From a strict baseball standpoint, a strong case can be made that Jeter should have moved from shortstop to second base, rather than shifting A-Rod to third base. But the Yankees, it was said, was Jeter’s team, and A-Rod should therefore defer to him. Rodriguez made the change without any public complaint, even though he was on track to being the greatest shortstop (and therefore arguably the greatest all-around player) of all time. Should not a real leader, the Captain of the Yankees, have offered magnanimously to change positions to help the team? Should he not have come to the defense of an unpopular but struggling teammate, even if he privately didn’t quite believe the story?
I would still vote for Jeter. I do not know enough about the behind the scenes circumstances – what goes on in the clubhouse every day. A-Rod, after all, is a grown man and a very rich one. He should have known what he was getting himself into. For all I know, out of pride, A-Rod may have asked Jeter to keep his distance. Or Jeter may have calculated that Rodriguez would respond better to his teammates’ implicit criticism rather than to the perception that he was being coddled.
Somehow I don’t think that is the case. Jeter’s teammates have clearly taken the lead from his distant posture. A-Rod strikes me as someone who needs praise and more than a little tender loving care. If so, Joe Torre is as much to question as Jeter. Torre has never been in A-Rod’s corner, either. One recalls the coaching genius of Red Auerbach (and Vince Lombardi), always treating players according to their individual personalities.
I make that argument provisionally because I admire Torre as a man and Jeter as a player. But it does raise a red flag as we track the continuing saga of the Colossus of the North and think about the legacy of the Jeter years. Maybe the fault doesn’t lie entirely with George Steinbrenner.