Sunday, September 19, 2010

Theodicy and Saint Jeter

“When we explain action in terms of desires and beliefs we are not putting forward any explanatory theory to account for action. It is true that desires and beliefs explain action; but the explanation is not of any causal hypothetical form. It is not as if the actions of human beings constitute a set of raw data – actions identifiable on their faces as the kinds of actions they are – for which we may seek an explanatory hypothesis. On the contrary, many human actions are not identifiable as actions of a particular kind unless they are already seen and interpreted as proceeding from a particular set of desires and beliefs.”
— Anthony Kenny : Free Will and Responsibility

If you pay any attention at all to baseball, you must have heard the squawking the other day when Derek Jeter acted like a pitch that hit his bat hit his hand well enough to fool the home plate umpire. Joe Posnanski had a good take on it over at his blog. I agreed with a lot of what he said. "I save my deep admiration for people who choose fair play over a momentary advantage," in particular is a notion that resonates pretty deeply for me. Posnanski turns Jeter into a bit of a parable, as is sometimes his wont1, but in doing so conflates Derek Jeter the man and Derek Jeter the media construct in a way that isn't really fair.

1: I think the reason Posnanski is way up on my current mental list of sportswriters is how he doesn't shy away from turning a yarn into a parable but does so in a way that sidesteps the pat pieties of the Rick Reillys of the world.

"I don't think what Jeter did was wrong, not at all, not in baseball terms. So what was my reaction? Well, I think what Jeter did was kind of ... sad. Has he become so impotent as a hitter -- do you realize the guy now has an 86 OPS+? -- that now he's willing to hop around and have trainers look at his forearm when the ball clearly did not hit him? That's what Derek Jeter has become? And then afterward, he's sheepishly defending the move by saying it's his job to get on base, well, is that what's behind the Derek Jeter aura? Is that what he has stood for all these years?"
Look at what he does there. He's making two points here about how Derek Jeter let him/us down. The first is that Jeter, who is having a pretty bad year and looking more mortal than he ever has before, has now crossed over the line between young and great and old and hanging on, and that's why he did what he did. This may be true, but for that to be the case we'd need to know what's going on inside Jeter's head, or at least that he wouldn't have tried this earlier in his career. Neither is knowable, it seems to me. I agree that playacting is a cheap move, but I don't know how we can claim with any certainty that this is something that he wouldn't have tried a decade ago.

But fine, some license here isn't a huge deal. It's undeniable that Jeter is in his decline, and he needs every break in a way he never has before. I think the point Posnanski makes about aging and cheating is valid, just maybe not as applicable here as he thinks. But look at the second thing he does: "That's what Jeter has that what's behind the Derek Jeter aura? Is that what he stood for all these years?" As a Red Sox fan, the media trope of Derek Jeter as all that is good and just in baseball has driven me crazy, at least partially because he's never really offered a chink in his armor2. But what Posnanski does there is to subtly hold Jeter the man hostage to Jeter the media narrative.
2: Other than his crappy defense, of course, but now I'm just being petty.
There was a bit of an internet scuffle about how we should view Kevin Durant after the FIBA championships. By all reports, Durant is a kind, mature young man who lives and breathes basketball and is working hard to max out his talent. But that's the thing, "by all reports". Very few of us know the man at all, and the media we rely on to tell us about him only sees him in his professional context. The upshot was an interesting debate about whether it's fair or a good idea to hold Kevin Durant up as an ideal(ized) player3, and if to do so is simply setting him up to be turned on by the same media that would do the building up.
3: The tweets from Nate Jones are also very worth looking at, but hard to link to. You can find the links in the Bethlehem Shoals article I linked first up there.
I don't think Posnanski is trying to be unfair to Jeter here, but that doesn't mean he isn't. Derek Jeter never told us he was perfect. He certainly never gave us a Barkleyesque disavowal, but who is going to argue with media coverage presenting him or herself as representing truth, justice and apple pie? I'm sure he made a lot of money in his career by being the face of the Yankee Way, but it's a position to which he was voted by others, not one for which he volunteered. "Is that what he stood for all these years?" Maybe that's what Derek JeterTM stood for, but that's because the media decided he did. Faking his way into a HBP wasn't a betrayal of anything, it just serves as a warning not to trust the media when it holds anyone up as a symbol of capitalized values. Derek Jeter, like Kevin Durant, LeBron James and any other athlete you choose to look at, is a man, not a myth. We do the athletes and ourselves a disservice any time we lose sight of that fact.

1 comment:

  1. Very lucidly said.
    #2 should have taken that jack-knifing course I used to teach and none of this would have ever happened.


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