Commentary

Numbers, Judges and Derek Jeter

Updated: November 15, 2010, 5:58 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Know first that this doesn't resolve anything. Nothing much comes into focus. It doesn't make an argument or reveal a larger truth or even reach a conclusion. These are just the scattered thoughts of another casual fan.

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Andrew Burton/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter chased and stopped this ball before it marred the grass, but the runner reached safely for an infield single.

• According to the United States Census Bureau, our median household income is now around $52,000 a year. That's usually with two adults working. And of course doesn't include the $19,000 in consumer debt they carry. Or their mortgage.

• According to Baseball-Reference.com, since arriving in the big leagues 15 years ago, Derek Jeter has earned $205,430,000 playing baseball.

• In my imagination, it is therefore possible that an average American family could live comfortably for a year on the money to be found sliding around loose in Derek Jeter's glove compartment. That same family of the mind might buy a handsome house in South Orange or West Covina with the uncashed checks that gather in the bottom of his sock drawer; or send their kids to Princeton on what lies forgotten in the pockets of his bespoke tuxedoes.

They could erase their debts with the damp per diem in his shaving kit.

And yet they do not hate him.

They do not carry their torches and pitchforks uptown to surround his apartment. They do not drag him out into the streets or hang him in effigy or found new political parties to vote him out of office or off the island.

In fact, they love him.

They love him very much.

• Derek Jeter is 36. He is a free agent, and everyone everywhere lately wonders how much it will cost to keep him working. And for how long. And for whom.

• What Derek Jeter does for a living is hit a rock with a stick. So his work is very much like that of any bored shepherd since the dawn of humanity.

• Derek Jeter earned $22.6 million this season.

• It was his worst season ever, rock-and-stickwise. Especially when trying to stop those rocks hit hard by others. About which much has been written.

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Al Bello/Getty ImagesThe monumental numbers haven't just grown bigger in the minds of the stats scribes. They're ubiquitous on stadium scoreboards and TV, too.

• But he won an award for that very thing, which angered the specialists in shepherd assessment and the right-thinking rock-and-stick theorists even further.

• It is sometimes worth remembering that in no way does the disposition of the rock, or the stick, or the shepherd -- or the calculation of the arithmetical relationships possible between all rocks and all sticks and all shepherds -- have any bearing on the conduct of anyone's real life anywhere.

• It is therefore worth asking whether it matters how well Derek Jeter does his work.

• Still, that's why we're here.

• Derek Jeter may be the last analog baseball hero this country ever knows. By which I mean this: his value as a role model, as a matinee idol, as an avatar of careless grace or physical ease or moral effort, as a local landmark or tourist attraction, as a bit of household mythology or intellectual property, now bear almost no relation to what you can prove about him on paper or in pixels. Last week's Gold Glove punchout showed as much.

• Thanks to new calculators and the new calculations they encourage, what we see of baseball and what we believe of baseball have never been more distant, more distinct. That separation is hardening into permanence. Until eventually all baseball stars will be only the tally of their spreadsheets. Which is honest and objective and right -- as far as it goes.

• How far that is, though, we're not yet sure. If we take up objectivity, do we have to abandon our passions? If we imbibe only fact, are we done with fairy tales? If we banish the TeeVee blowhards for getting their own stories wrong, do we have to throw out Scooter and Yogi with the bathwater, too?

• The difference between what can be proved and what cannot has always been the knock on Mr. Jeter anyway, even when his numbers were demonstrably good. Or great. The numbers couldn't quite live up to the hype or the smile or the entries in the little black book. He was mocked by those inclined to mockery for his "intangibles," because there is no quantum for "leadership." (What's the multiplier for not kissing your own image in a glossy magazine? What's the addend for a weekend spent with Mariah or Minka?)

• Thus, Derek Jeter has spent much of his career embodying the age-old fight between faith and science.

• Baseball is poised on the edge its own long overdue Information Age. Which will be a more wrenching change than even the most ardent numerologist suspects. Because the currency of the game has always been as much folklore as fact; as much imperfect memory as digital highlight reel.

• The difference between what can be proved and what cannot be proved is what humanity calls "art."

• And like so much of baseball, or of art, Derek Jeter is as much about how he makes you feel as he is about what he makes you think.

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Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter's bat was quieter this season, leading to louder discussions about his future amongst the Bronx chorus.

• It is of some fascination to me, then, that we grow nostalgic for him even as he still plies his trade, even as he still plays the game. We miss his youth on our own behalf.

• This is fitting because we are abject sentimentalizers. Boozy and quick to cry hot, fat tears for our own lost innocence. America's leading industry since the age of Ronald Reagan has been nostalgia, and baseball its most successful retailer.

(Maybe the most interesting thing you can say about American art and culture over the past 30 years is that at the same moment in our history, Ronald Reagan and Bruce Springsteen were both pining for some lost America. Both mourned for lost youth and lost greatness, but from opposite ends of the same table, from opposing points along the same timeline of our desires.

The relationship of Springsteen's art to Reagan's politics has always been that of the prodigal and the father, the distance between them filled with equal measures unsung love and lyrical revulsion. That our culture delivered Reagan and Springsteen up to us in the same moment speaks volumes about our appetite for an imagined past, and about the forces at work in America, the forces at work in opposition and in harness and in response to our pervasive sense of something profoundly lost.)

• Otherwise, why pay more than half a million dollars for Gibson's bat, when you could just download his VORP?

• So all the bad faith hypotheticals or fawning whatnots in the New York tabloids will get us nowhere when it comes to the question of Derek Jeter. All the big league realpolitik of baseball's touts and railbirds brings us no closer to the truth of the truth. Even the numbers only carry us so far.

• But ask yourself this: Who needs a shepherd most?

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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