Do Not Tread On Jeter

It happened to me on Wednesday. The Yankees opened their postseason in Minnesota against the Twins.  It was the third game of a playoff baseball triple header, and I had already endured the entirety of the second game at my local Toronto pub surrounded by recently acquired Phillies fans cheering on Roy Halladay’s no hitter.

After a few celebratory drinks, the Phillies fans gradually exited and were replaced by a new crowd.

I don’t know what it’s like in New York, but in Canada, the expatriate Yankees fan is typically not as visible during the regular season as in the playoffs when they make up for their earlier absence by being twice as loud and opinionated as any normal baseball fan.

Their excitement is understandable.  They support the most successful franchise in baseball history and in any given year they more than likely have a team of players that will be competing for the World Series.

I wish that my team could leave me feeling as confident as their team does them.

Despite a 3-0 Twins lead after five innings, the Yankees fan sitting next to me was certain of a comeback.  There were no SABRmetrics in his argument.  The Twins being chokers was all the proof he needed to voice his opinion.

When he turned out being correct, as the Yankees stormed back in the top of the sixth with four runs, I shook my head and acknowledged his correct prediction.

Telling someone that they were right while you had your doubts is a great way to open up drunken conversation lanes.  Within minutes we were talking about the Yankees chances this season, the emergence of Brett Gardner and Robinson Cano’s MVP caliber year. Between the conversation and more drinks, we barely even noticed that in the bottom of the sixth C.C. Sabathia walked Danny Valencia with the bases loaded to tie the game.

We were getting along about as well as fans of rival teams can, doling out equal criticism and praise for the players we respected and hated.

Then, I brought up Derek Jeter’s overrated defensive ability.

It was as though I had insulted his mother, sister and anyone he had ever loved all at once.

After saying far more disparaging things about Alex Rodriguez and A.J. Burnett only moments prior, an innocent throw away comment on Jeter’s awful range completely spoiled any camaraderie that had been built up.

His shocked face twitched with an anger usually reserved for a father dealing with a disrespectful child.  Trying desperately to suppress his obvious rage, all he could muster in Jeter’s defense was that he had won FOUR Gold Gloves.

I laughed off the merits of a Gold Glove award, bringing up Rafael Palmeiro’s 1999 award, the year he played an entire 28 games at first base.  The conversation immediately turned cold, as though I had crossed a line and should have known better than to even go near it.

His once exuberant celebration turned quiet and stunted as the Yankees scored two in the top of the seventh and held on to win the game 6-4.  I had clearly ruined this guy’s night, simply by saying something negative about Derek Jeter.

Talking about it amongst friends later, they each told stories that confirmed my hypothesis: Yankees fans are abnormally protective of their starting shortstop.

Take any game in any away ballpark.  The Yankees traveling army of fans will sit quietly through the questioning of Alex Rodriguez’s sexuality, the sarcastic mourning of lost hair follicles on Mariano Rivera’s head and even chants on the likelihood of C.C. Sabathia’s adult-onset diabetes, but one mention of “overrated” when Derek Jeter steps to the plate and all hell will break loose.

“What did you say about Jeter?” is the common question that precedes stadium brawls across the American League.

Of course, the phenomenon isn’t confined to bars and ballparks.  A quick tour of keyboard warrior internet sites reveals that any critical comment on Derek Jeter is met with a swift blow of online hate and an all-too-eager defense of Mr. November.

Seriously, pointing out Jeter was only 3 for 12 in November when he got his nickname or that Alex Rodriguez is actually a better shortstop than Jeter will get you branded as a trolling Red Sox fan or even worse (believe it or not there are a few worse things).

Even critical comments about his girlfriend are deemed inappropriate by the Jeter police.

As Jeter simultaneously finishes the worst season and largest contract of his career at the age of 36, Yankees fans will have to prepare all new defenses if he re-signs in New York.

And look: it seems as though they’ve already started.

With the type of devotion that Yankees fans have for Jeter, combined with the fact that in all likelihood he’ll collect his 3,000 career hit next season, right or wrong, his regressed hitting and overrated defense may not be the main factors in any off-season contract negotiations.

What counts will be his career as a Yankee both on and off the field.  As overblown and exaggerated as it often is, it’s still a career that has earned him the type of adulation, attachment and aggrandizing that fans of other teams can only hope to have for their players.

In addition to all of this, Jeter is still in a place to play the role of hero once again and further that reputation, as the New York Yankees prepare to face the Texas Rangers in Game One of the ALCS on Friday night.