Jeter, I’ll say, was the occasion for maybe my first encounter with a truth not known to most boys: a man’s butt can be covetable. It’s one of the clearer memories I have: seventh grade, and we’re at somebody’s house, and the Yankees are on in the background, and Jeter walks to the plate, and steps in, and a girl friend of mine, Audrey, gasps and says, pointing at the TV with a hand half-over her mouth, God, look at that.
It’s an ocean of love right now, for him. If you care about this kind of thing, if you’ve been following Jeter’s yearlong goodbye to baseball, you know this. It’s so much. The home-plate ceremonies at stadiums all summer, all over the country, with the mansized checks made out to Turn 2, his charity; long, unanimous ovations; his face carved into cornfields; Top Tens of epic deeds Jeter performed on the field (“The Flip,” the home run off Byung-Hyun Kim after 9/11, the 3000th hit and so on); and, so far, two tributary commercials so disarmingly moving you’re forced to wonder what your critical faculties are even for if Gatorade’s able to do this to you—it’s been a succession of triumphant, really good-feeling endings. And Jeter was great at baseball. But what the love, or really, the worship, tends to revolve around is what a good guy he is. He is, you hear everywhere, “a hero to us all.”
But whether it’s true or not, I mean, whether you actually think it’s a good idea to take Derek Jeter as an example for how to be in the world, there’s something else contained in all the talk of role models and winners and leaders, the religious dialect of Business English that feels like the only language you’ve got for praising Jeter—it feels almost silly to point out, because it’s so obvious, but still: he’s mainly a hero to men.
You worshipped him, in other words, for the kind of man he was. And, so often over the course of his career, for the kind of man he was vis-à-vis women. Vis-à-vis hot women. When you cut through most of the baseball writing (which, frustratingly, mainly reads like copy), and go a little deeper into the internet, to where the fans are, the sanctifying shifts from moral goodness to heroic slayings. There, it’s all about the Girlfriends, those mythical bosses he conquered on the way to greatness. The lists vary—The 9 Hottest Girlfriends of Derek Jeter’s Career, Derek Jeter’s Dating Diamond, 14 Women Derek Jeter Dated Before He Realized He’s Ready to Settle Down, Ranking Derek Jeter’s Famous 11 Ex-Girlfriends, the Women of Derek Jeter, Derek Jeter: Ranking His 10 Hottest Girlfriends Throughout The Years, the 10 Hottest Girlfriends and Flings of Derek Jeter—but the fact of a holy list remains the same.
So, yes, Jeter’s been an object to behold, smiling perfectly in form-hugging pinstripes. He’s the guy the girls talk about to each other. But not just girls: the man’s beauty—and that’s what it is—is part of a properly ancient tradition of men contemplating male forms, which persists, totally obviously and passionately disavowed, in modern fandom.2 Since Audrey, the truth is, I haven’t been able to unsee his ass. But Jeter’s also always been a subject of desire, a man through whom you learned to think about, and want, women. Here, the tradition’s less one of beholding at a distance, and more about hoary dreams of conquest. And those dreams, which see sex as hunting and killing and old-fashioned (to the point of medieval) battle, do create your reality. Furtive viewings of online slideshows of Jeter’s girlfriends, always almost nearly naked, one after the other, butts arched in the air on a bed or stopped, dripping, halfway up a pool ladder, or tossing their arms laughing around Jeter’s neck or whispering to him at a Knicks game—this, for lots of men, is a not inconsiderable part of what makes Jeter worthy of worship, the stuff of legends. He is, in the words of a Morning Show host I once listened to in a car to Phoenix, an “amazing machine of lady-grabbing.”
And yes, there’s shitty misogyny here. That’s true. These girlfriend lists have me checking over my shoulder, and they also prick my conscience (in that way that only porn can, where the part of you that can say all the ways that what you’re looking at it is gross is like a half-interesting academic: right, but irrelevant). But the thing with Jeter is: a lot of us were boys once. So even if you’re a man who doesn’t feel great about the phrase “lady-grabbing,” you may still have something like it somewhere inside you as an ideal.
You have to remember that there was, somehow, a childhood before the internet, before porn or the word “misogyny.” That was the world in which you grew up watching Jeter becoming Jeter. 1997, for example. Third grade. Mariah Carey released “Honey.” The music video wasn’t as devastating as “Heartbreaker,” but it definitely got into my head. She slips out of her dress underwater. She was also Jeter’s first girlfriend. After Mariah there came a steady succession of what felt like—in part, of course, because some of them were literally named—the world’s hottest women. You charted it. Whenever a new girlfriend had been acquired, a Yankees announcer would offhandedly allude to it as Jeter came to bat, or a friend would tell you, or the camera would cut to Jeter and her courtside at Madison Square Garden.3By high school, if you remember, there were sports kids and there were music kids, at least among the boys. And if you were in the former camp, Jeter’s game was kind of amazing.
Living the dream, was what you’d say at the TV, half meaning it.
And then it became routine. Dating the world’s currently hottest woman became part of Jeter’s job description, a task he carried out as coolly as he played short. As coolly, but also kind of as dully. There was always something distinctly PG about Jeter’s love life. No scandals, no making out, no affairs, no short-lived marriages. No marriage at all. It all felt almost platonic, sexless, a high school sitcom where the stud never aged.4 Jeter’s status as a good guy was never really in tension with his litany of perfect girlfriends; if anything, it was bolstered by it, as if his universally praised classiness on the field were confirmed in an old-school gentlemanliness in love.
In a moment where we’re surrounded by images of male sports stars being scarily mean to women, you could understand the urge to believe in Jeter’s knightliness, forever unviolent and unstained, as a leftover from a better time. Now, if you’re into this kind of thing, Reddit and the Post contain various stories testifying to a predictably crappy private Jeter, one who sends women home with autographed memorabilia, proclaims (or softly moans, depending on the version of the rumor),Yeah, Jeets, when you go down on him, watches reels of himself butt naked chanting the same, and so on, and it’s all not entirely unbelievable (he can’t possibly be as good as we think). But this is a little like the literary historian trying to uncover who the actual historical person was behind the hero. In the Neverland of deep fandom, it’s not the real Jeter you relate to. Here, Jeter’s conquering of every woman that a boy—if he were a man—could ever want becomes a sort of knightly exemplar, the work of a purehearted grabber of ladies, who slays harmlessly.
Here’s a memory—not from a better time, but from 1997. I was ten, maybe eleven, and we were in Alex’s MVP Cards and Comics one night after dinner when an older kid came scrambling in with the news that Jeter and Mariah were at a restaurant three blocks away. Outside, right there on the street, he said. There were only a handful of us, a group like you only got in places like Alex’s: my younger brother, two balding men, a teenage girl (who seemed to have something to do with the balding men), the messenger, my mom, me. Somebody had to go see. But whether it was the wisdom about it always being a bad idea to see your idols close up or a fear of seeming overeager or just the presence of my mom, nobody moved. A silence. Well? the girl said. And then turning to my brother and me, Don’t you live around here? like that decided it. It did. And so we—my brother and I, and our mom, who tailed us—left Alex’s and walked down Second Avenue and then over to First, and as we got closer to the restaurant, which was called Sharz (it’s defunct now), we started to run. When we arrived at the corner there was already a group of men gathered: men who cut flowers at the deli and delivered burritos, others in ties who’d joined on their way home. I might be making this up, but I remember one of them making a big-eyed “come here” motion, like you had to be careful not to alert the stars to our spectating. We took our spots. We watched them eat and drink and touch each other’s hands. We looked. Jeter had only been Rookie of the Year the year before, which is to say, this was only his first unbelievably hot girlfriend (for us, anyway), plus I was a kid, and so the sheer concentration of manly desire on the corner was new.
Did I wish it were me? The question, then forming, was actually a lot like the one I felt in the moment of Audrey’s marveling, though both have all but evaporated in the time it took Jeter to grow old. It’s hard to remember how much it mattered.