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Derek Jeter, Fake HBPs, and Baseball Standards

Over at SBN-DFW, Brett Perryman takes Derek Jeter to task for faking being hit by a pitch last night, calling it a "despicable" act, and also gets onto the media for blessing Jeter's act.  Brett says that Jeter cheated, and says it is no different than using a corked bat. 

If you look at the photo on the right, Jeter certainly looks like he was hit, and injured, by a seventh inning pitch from Chad Qualls.  Brett links the video of the play, and Jeter does an acting job that would be envied by Manu Ginobili or any French soccer player.  He even lets the trainer come out and examine him, as if there was some question about whether he'd be able to stay in the game.

Jeter himself admitted after the game that the ball didn't hit him; it hit his bat.  His explanation:

"He said it hit me, so I didn't argue." 

Of course, as you can see from the photo and the video, Jeter did more than just not argue...he flat out faked being hit, sold the fake, and was awarded first base as a result, ultimately scoring on a Curtis Granderson home run.  Jeter's explanation seems, to me, to be disingenuous.

This story is interesting to me on a few different levels.  First, I think it possibly says something about Jeter's perception of himself right now.  He's having his worst season as a major leaguer, sporting a 698 OPS.  He's in a critical game, needing to get on base.  While I may be reading too much into this, I have to wonder if, 10 years ago, Jeter would have sold this fake the same way. 

Would Jeter, in his prime, have felt that he needed to fake getting hit to get on base against a Devil Ray pitcher?  Or would he have felt so confident in his ability to get a hit that the thought wouldn't even have occurred to him?  

This is even more relevant with Jeter approaching free agency, with speculation being that he's going to want $20+ million per year from the Yankees for 4 or 5 years to re-up.  If the Yankee Captain feels he has to fake an HBP in order to get on base in September, does he really have so high of an opinion of his abilities that he'd insist on superstar money?

The other thing is the lack of outcry about what happened.  I think back to a couple of controversial Alex Rodriguez moments...the glove-slap in the playoffs, and the yelling "Ha!" on an infield pop fly.  Both were acts of someone who was doing something shady to try to help his team win, and ARod was pretty widely condemned in both instances.

My reaction at the time was that, if Derek Jeter did the same thing, he'd be praised for it.  And based on the reaction to this episode by the media, and even Joe Maddon, who Brett quotes in his piece, I was right. 

I don't want to get into a, was this right, was it wrong, was it ethical debate.  Baseball is a game with a lot of unwritten rules, a lot of talk about playing the game the "right way," about playing the game the way it is meant to be played.  You don't steal up 10 runs.  You don't swing for the fences with a big lead.  Scuffing the ball, stealing signs, that's okay if you can get away with it.  It is part of what makes baseball "colorful."  Popping greenies?  That's fine.  But corking bats, or steroids?  That's not okay.

But it leads to the question...who decided what is okay and what isn't okay?  Who makes the rules?  How did all these unwritten rules get into place?

And ultimately, as I think this demonstrates, the answer is that Derek Jeter decides.

Well, not Derek Jeter himself.  But the Derek Jeters of baseball, who have been around since the beginning of the game.

A couple of books come to mind.  One, of course, is Jim Bouton's "Ball Four," with Bouton scratching his head at the archaic rules and rituals that players are expected to follow, in terms of their behavior in the clubhouse, on the field, off the field, with the media. 

The other is Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point."  The book starts off with the Hush Puppies that were basically going extinct suddenly getting picked up by hipsters, becoming trendy, and getting new life in the marketplace.

Gladwell talks about what we think of as opinion leaders, and the importance they have in influencing those around them.  Hush Puppies became hip because a few folks in New York City, whose fashion choices tended to be emulated by others, decided they would start wearing them.  Hush Puppies aren't inherently cool or fashionable...they became so because the cool and fashionable people started wearing them.

Derek Jeter is the alpha opinion leader among baseball players of this generation.  Why?  I can't say for sure.  I've never met him.  But he came up with the Yankees, earned the respect of his peers for "playing the game the right way," treated the media in a way that earned him their undying love and respect, and has progressed to the point that he ultimately defines what is acceptable and what is not.

He's the popular kid in junior high who, in my era, came to school wearing parachute pants, and three days later, everyone was wearing parachute pants.  He's the persona who ultimately defines what is cool and what is right. 

The dominant viewpoint out there is that Derek Jeter embodies the Yankee Way.  He plays the game the right way.  By definition, if he does something, it is Right.  He's carrying the mantle of Joe Dimaggio and Don Mattingly and those others throughout baseball who write the unwritten rules.  

And thus, if he fakes getting hit by a pitch...well, that's because he's a winner.  He's going to do whatever it takes to get on base and help his team succeed.  Since Derek Jeter (and those like him) define what is right and what is wrong among the culture of baseball, his actions are inherently appropriate.

Now, if Alex Rodriguez had done that?  Different story.  He's a phony.  He's a cheater.  He only cares about the money and his image.  He has a painting of himself as a centaur, for goodness sake.

If Alex Rodriguez fakes a HBP, he's a bad guy who has shown once again he doesn't respect the game.

Derek Jeter, though, in the eyes of those around the game, appears to have reached the point where he's transcended all of that.