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Book Reviews: 'The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter' and 'Bullpen Diaries: Mariano Rivera, Bronx Dreams, Pinstripe Legends, and the Future of the New York Yankees'

As the Yankees look toward the future, two new books remind us that, for all its history, the team's present remains unpredictable.

June 12, 2011|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • New York Yankees' Derek Jeter, front, Mariano Rivera, left, and Jorge Posada, right, on Sept. 21, 2008.
New York Yankees' Derek Jeter, front, Mariano Rivera, left, and Jorge… (Kathy Willens, Associated…)

THE CAPTAIN

The Journey of Derek Jeter

Ian O'Connor

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 400 pp., $26

BULLPEN DIARIES

Mariano Rivera, Bronx Dreams, Pinstripe Legends, and the Future of the New York Yankees

Charley Rosen

Harper: 370 pp., $25.99

For the New York Yankees, the 2010 offseason was a tale of two superstars, both of whom they wanted to re-sign. On the one hand, there was Derek Jeter, iconic shortstop and face of the franchise, on the verge of becoming the first Yankee to record 3,000 hits in a career. On the other was Mariano Rivera, the best closer in the history of baseball, on track to set the all-time record for saves. Complicating the narrative was the drama of an aging team, bounced out of the playoffs by the younger, hungrier Texas Rangers, with significant expectations and equally significant holes. How would the Yankees balance past and future? Where was the line between loyalty and the need to win?

Such questions exist at the center of Ian O'Connor's "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter" and Charley Rosen's "Bullpen Diaries: Mariano Rivera, Bronx Dreams, Pinstripe Legends, and the Future of the New York Yankees," each of which seeks to deal with the Yankees as they were and as they may be. That neither book is overly successful is to be expected in a sports culture defined by access, in which athletes control their interactions with even the most sympathetic writers, speaking in sound bites and clichés.

O'Connor acknowledges this from the outset, noting that "Jeter decided not to make major contributions to this book." The Yankees' captain, he informs us, "did not want fans to think he was basking in his own glory," but more to the point, I think, is his notorious reticence. "Derek," explains his old friend R.D. Long, a former Yankees minor leaguer, "is the iciest non-icy person I've ever met," a man who "often lived behind impenetrable walls." In part, this has to do with his awareness of his legacy in the heritage of great Yankees, but as "The Captain" makes clear, it is also the result of the self-possession that has marked him since childhood, when, as early as fourth grade, he told his friends that he would play shortstop in New York.

"The Captain" is best on those early years, which represent the one piece of the Jeter story that has not been endlessly retold. Born in 1974 and raised in Kalamazoo, Mich., the son of a black father who was a substance abuse counselor and a white mother who was an accountant, he was a high school baseball star who signed with the Yankees in the first round of the 1992 amateur draft.

Jeter's parents are often cited as role models for their son, who endured his share of discrimination as a biracial kid in the Midwest. But equally significant, O'Connor writes, was his maternal grandfather, Sonny Connors, a New Jersey maintenance worker whose work ethic — "We used to open presents on Christmas Eve," Jeter's sister Sharlee recalls, "because our grandfather worked every Christmas Day" — rubbed off on his grandson. As O'Connor observes, Jeter's career has been defined by plays (his flip throw to Jorge Posada during the 2001 American League Division Series; the 2004 catch against Boston during which he crashed into the Yankee Stadium stands, cutting open his chin) most other players wouldn't make. "Not one player on any of my Boston teams ever had a single negative thing to say about him," notes Johnny Damon, long a member of the rival Red Sox until he became Jeter's teammate. He is now on the Tampa Bay Rays.

Yet as fun as this is to remember, it also highlights a fundamental weakness of "The Captain": its sense of hagiography. O'Connor touches on Jeter's frustrations as the championship run of 1996-2000 winds down, but while he hints at the shortstop's complicity in an increasingly dysfunctional clubhouse culture, he never really examines what it means. With the arrival of Alex Rodriguez in 2004, Jeter had to deal with a complex rival, and his refusal to embrace him — "I can't tell the fans what to do," he said pointedly, when they got on Rodriguez during the 2006 season — helped create a difficult dynamic for the team.

This is important, not just because it reflects on Jeter's glory days but also because of the way O'Connor treats him in the present, when his skills have diminished to the point that it's an open question how long he will play. As current manager Joe Girardi said in 2007, a year before he took over the team, "I feel sorry for the next Yankee manager … because he's the one who's going to have to tell Jeter he can't play shortstop anymore."

Still, even as O'Connor raises the issue, he shies away from it also, relegating Jeter's contentious 2010 contract negotiations to an epilogue that focuses on his desire, rather than his continuing ability, to win.

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