Derek Jeter, Gamesmanship

Jeter Just Doing What Ballplayers Do

The sports world is absolutely fascinated with Derek Jeter right now, the golden-boy Yankees captain-cum-cheater who acted gravely wounded by a ball that didn’t hit him during a game last night against Tampa Bay. (Watch it here, complete with commentary from each team’s broadcast crew.)

I don’t get the criticism. This is what ballplayers do.

Sure, they’re not often caught en flagrante to the degree that Jeter was, but at heart, they’re all the same in this regard. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single example in the history of the game in which a player willfully informed an umpire that a call had been incorrect in favor of the opposition. It doesn’t happen on balls or strikes or plays at the bases. It doesn’t happen on difficult fair-foul calls.

And it certainly doesn’t happen on hit-by-pitches.

Sure, Jeter went overboard with his Shakespearian dramatics. If you want to make a distinction between benefitting from an umpire’s bad call and influencing an umpire into making a bad call, that’s fair. But the underlying tenets are the same: in baseball, every advantage counts; you get ’em where you can.

“He told me to go to first base. I’m not going to tell him I’m not going to first, you know,” said Jeter, afterward. “It’s part of the game. My job is to get on base. Fortunately for us it paid off at the time, but I’m sure it would have been a bigger story if we would have won that game.”

Nobody ever called out an outfielder for acting as if he caught a ball he actually trapped.

“Play it off—that’s not cheating if the umpire lets you get away with it,” said longtime outfielder Von Joshua. “Any means you can to win a baseball game. . . . Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t. That’s just part of the game.”

Even Rays manager Joe Maddon was impressed by Jeter’s effort. “I thought Derek did a great job, and I applaud it,” he said in an report, “because I wish our guys would do the same thing.”

Heck, is it really so different than A.J. Pierzynski sticking his elbow into the path of a pitched ball in order to get on base? Neither are admirable, but both are accepted. (Of course, when Pierzynski did it with the bases loaded and a 9-2, eighth-inning lead in 2004, he insured himself a future drilling.)

HardballTalk points out similar displays from Yunel Escobar and Pierzynski, again.  It’s pure gamesmanship.

Jeter even has precedent on his own team. In a 1928 game between the Yankees and Browns, with two outs and Lou Gehrig the baserunner at first, second-base umpire George Hildenbrand turned to watch the play on the lead runner when Bob Meusel hit a ground ball to shortstop Red Kress.

Except that Kress threw to first, and Hildenbrand was caught with his back to the play.

Meusel had been thrown out cleanly, but Hildenbrand hadn’t seen it. Instead, he appealed to Meusel’s honesty.

“Everybody knows you’re out, Bob. Everybody saw it . . .” he said, according to the Baseball Hall of Shame, Vol. IV. “Be a sport and call yourself out.”

Meusel’s response: “George, you’ve been getting nine thousand bucks a year for a long time as an umpire. Now’s a good time to start earning it.”

Hildenbrand had no choice. The runner was safe, and Browns pitcher Al Crowder had to seek his fourth out of the inning.

So wnough with the calls of “Derek Cheater.” The guy was just doing what big leaguers do.

Update (9-22-10): Jorge Posada did kinda sorta the same thing.

– Jason