- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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For 15 years now, the paparazzi have stalked Derek Jeter whenever he sets foot out his front door.
For 15 years, he has lived in the crosshairs of a media as trained on its subject as an elite sniper unit.
And in those 15 years, he has emerged remarkably unscathed.
Not once has Jeter been caught in a compromising position with a woman, or kissing himself in a mirror, or taking his shirt off in Central Park. For all we know, he's never even gotten a parking ticket.
The worst thing he has done so far is blow off Bob Sheppard's funeral, and, regretfully, haven't we all done something like that?
(Yeah, he didn't pay his property taxes in New York a few years back, but all those who believe fudging your tax returns is a crime, please raise your hand.)
And most importantly, in an era populated by overmuscled steroid cheats, Jeter has thrived despite playing the game clean (as far as we know).
To find anything wrong with this guy, we have had to resort to the sabermetricians, who with their charts and algorithms have somehow concluded that contrary to what your eyes and the results have told you, the guy is actually a bum.
Until Wednesday night. In the seventh inning of a crucial game at Tropicana Field, the cameras caught Derek Jeter, live in HD, surround sound and YES-Mo, in what an army of photographers and reporters have been rooting around for since 1996.
The guy is not above occasionally doing what lesser mortals do on a regular basis, which is trying to grab something he did not deserve to have ... in this case, first base.
That, in a word, is cheating.
There are other words for it, as well, such as lying and stealing, but for now, let's stick to the C word.
I understand that in the jockosphere, doing what Jeter did Wednesday night falls under the euphemism of "gamesmanship," code for doing whatever one can get away with in order to win.
And I've been around enough sports, professional and amateur, as both participant and observer, to know that what Jeter did is hardly original or even very serious, although if the Yankees' 3-2 lead, courtesy of Curtis Granderson's home run immediately following Jeter's (not) hit-by-pitch, had held up, it would be a different story today.
But the fact that it even is a story today is not so much about what was done, but who did it.
Face it, if Alex Rodriguez had pulled a Jeter and played the death scene from "Madame Bovary" in response to a pitch that clearly hit the knob of his bat, we would all be having a fine day skewering him as a crybaby, and yes, a cheater.
And a lot of that is A-Rod's own fault, having already engaged in several instances of public behavior that had earned him those tags.
Certainly, what Jeter did does not fall into the realm of shouting "Ha!" at an infielder camping under a pop fly or trying to swat the ball out of a player's glove. Those were blatant instances of cheating that permanently stripped Rodriguez of any possible benefit of the doubt. And I haven't even mentioned the words "Boli" or Dallas Braden. A-Rod's resume of unseemly behavior is thick enough without them.
But Jeter is a different story entirely. This is a guy who has played as exemplary a career as could possibly be played for this team, in this media environment, for the past 15 years.
The worst thing he has done on the field is have the nerve to grow old, to hit only .262 instead of his customary .315, and at 36 years old, to have lost a step or two going to his left at shortstop.
What happened Wednesday night is something we might have come to expect from the likes of A-Rod, something unethical and faintly unseemly, something you know is accepted in sports but never quite makes you feel right when you see it, even if it is done by your favorite team or player.
In real life, it might translate to lying on your resume or fudging your sales figures. In my business, it would be equivalent to "borrowing" someone else's work and passing it off as my own, or inventing a quote and putting it into the mouth of some nonexistent "unnamed source."
In just about any profession -- except on Wall Street, where such practices seem to be rewarded with hefty bonuses -- that kind of thing will get you fired and probably blackballed.
In professional sports, it gets you the reputation of being "a gamer," a guy who will do anything to get an edge over his opponent. It is precisely that sort of thinking that gave rise to the steroid mentality.
Jeter did nothing so egregious, of course, and no one in his or her right mind could have expected him to tell the umpire that the ball did not, in fact, hit him, which he readily admitted after the game.
But there was something a little grubby about the whole act, something a little desperate, and something that reminded me of how much I scorn outfielders who jump up screaming they caught that sinking liner that the replay clearly shows they trapped, or the wide receiver who insists he caught the pass that the eye in the sky proves to have skipped.
It reveals a fundamental lack of integrity we have come, sadly, to expect of the average person, but not from Derek Jeter, who over the past 15 years has shown himself to be anything but average.
The Yankees, of course, have more serious problems to deal with than whether or not Jeter actually got hit with a pitch in a vital game that they eventually lost.
There is the very real issue of whether Joe Girardi should continue to marshal his forces for the postseason and not really care about winning the division, which to me looks like a potentially fatal mistake.
And there are those pesky Rays, who simply refuse to slink off into a corner.
All of those issues are a lot more vital than whether or not Derek Jeter did the right thing Wednesday night, and yet, it is the Jeter issue that has so many of us thinking and talking and arguing today.
For the past 15 years, Jeter has been everything we want our ballplayers to be, and everything we would like our kids to become.
Except for one split-second Wednesday night, when he became something he has never been before: Human. And therefore, flawed.