After spending 20 years as the shortstop of the New York Yankees, in that special parcel of land between second and third base, Derek Jeter finds himself standing in a new spot, but one not entirely unfamiliar:
The ex-ballplayer as of last Sunday now finds himself smack-dab between hypocrisy and irony. So far, we can report, he seems just as confident and comfortable as ever.
Jeter announced Wednesday that he is the founding publisher of The Players’ Tribune, a website that, according to a letter posted as the site’s first content, aims “to ultimately transform how athletes and newsmakers share information, bringing fans closer than ever to the games they love.”
The irony is apparent: Jeter, who deftly navigated the shark-infested waters of immense fame in New York by pleasantly offering nothing of substance for years, is now providing a vessel for athletes to share personal feelings. It’s such an obvious absurdity that even Jeter felt the need to address it in his letter.
“I do think fans deserve more than ‘no comments’ or ‘I don’t knows.’ Those simple answers have always stemmed from a genuine concern that any statement, any opinion or detail, might be distorted,” wrote Jeter (or one of his public relations staffers).
“I’m not a robot. Neither are the other athletes who at times might seem unapproachable. We all have emotions. We just need to be sure our thoughts will come across the way we intend.”
And there you have the hypocrisy. If you can put yourself in Jeter’s specially made Nikes, the desire to cut out the middleman — the mainstream media — is understandable.
The majority of athletes dream of ditching that obligation, and many hardly can or care to discern between the intent and quality of the various outlets. When TMZ called John Lackey for comment while reporting that the Red Sox pitcher was getting a divorce in September 2011, his ire was not just with that outlet. It was with every reporter in the locker room, affiliation be damned.
But purporting that this site will tell the athletes’ real story is ridiculous. It will tell their stories as they and their handlers want them told. It’s about controlling the message. It will provide less insight, not more.
For all of his admirable attributes, the hypocrisy/irony double play is not new to Jeter. He was hailed above all else as a great teammate and winner, yet his insistence on remaining at shortstop and batting second in the order cost the Yankees as his skills eroded.
With his usual savvy, Jeter leveraged his candor during his final season. A feature in New York Magazine was a worthwhile read — he literally opened the door to his world, inviting the reporter and a photographer to his home — but when he began discussing the details of his new publishing imprint with Simon & Schuster, Jeter Publishing, it sure felt like that access was the result of bartering.
And that much-lauded Gatorade commercial, in which Jeter had his driver drop him off a few blocks from the ballpark so he could mingle with the people, doesn’t hold up on repeated viewings — especially once you read in AdWeek that it took just 30 minutes to film and certain areas were roped off. You realize that Jeter didn’t linger, that this was nothing close to a genuine Willie Mays-playing-stickball moment, just one designed to look like it was. And why did it take him 20 years?
Of course, very little of that matters in regard to whether this venture will succeed. While the inclination upon hearing Jeter’s plan was to think of other failed straight-from-the-athlete sites and publications (remember Lenny Dykstra’s disastrous “Players Club” magazine) there is appeal in the approach if done right.
Will Jeter’s site succeed? Well, it’s clear it’s not a lark, which is a good place to start. Established media professionals are on board, including Gary Hoenig, a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine, as editorial director. Jeter certainly has the high-level connection, and other prominent athletes will be more than willing to be associated with his brand.
Thursday brought more buzz for the site — and added another big name to the masthead. Russell Wilson, the much-admired Seahawks quarterback, contributed a piece in which he revealed he was a bully in middle school.
It was relatively compelling stuff from Wilson, who is listed as a senior editor of the site. The trick now for Jeter and ThePlayersTribune.com is to constantly provide similarly transparent and revealing (if harmless) content from equally big names.
Readers are sophisticated, and have more options than ever. To build and maintain an audience, there must be genuine candor. That has never been the founding editor’s strong suit.
But I can think of one way we’ll know whether Jeter is serious about opening the door. How about writing a column about what he really thought about the retirement party the Red Sox threw him?