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The Greatest Athlete: “Is Derek Jeter Such a Bad Defender That He’s a Bad Player?”

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Left: Derek Jeter (leaping over Cleveland’s Brian Giles). Right: Willie Mays.   

Wulf: He grew up in Richmond, but, yeah, he embraced New York.

Sheehan: The seventies were just great for that. You had Walt Frazier, you had Namath, you had Espo. Seems like you could be a New York athlete more than at any other time in history.

Leitch: A guy like Namath would get blasted by the press today.

Leiter: Anybody who wants to step out and be that guy would meet some resistance. Whereas, long hair and doing some stuff in Studio 54—it was part of the whole.

Wulf: You still made your life in the city then.

Leiter: That’s a great point. I think about Willie Mays, playing stickball in Harlem with the kids, all these guys who used to live and breathe with the borough. Then, later, there was some instinct to go and get this sprawling estate …

Leitch: Do you think that has changed the connection that maybe fans have to their teams?

Leiter: Players are insulated and separated: All of that has chipped away at the closeness that fans could feel. And there’s also the huge socioeconomic separation. In baseball, the guys will gravitate to each other with questions about “Where you living?” I’d been playing for about 10 or 11 years, and when my wife and I came to New York it was like, “forget that suburb crap.” The years that I was on the Mets, from ’98 to ’04, there were two to three guys who lived in the city. By the end of my tenure, we had about 10 or 11. But when I first got called to the Yankees, all the Yankee stars, starting with Ron Guidry and Lou Pinella had moved to New Jersey. Again it was, “Where are you living?” So as a new player, you think, “All right, good enough for Piniella, this guy, this guy, I’ll move to New Jersey.” And now the Yankees are in Greenwich and Westchester, and that started with Jimmy Key and Wade Boggs’s moving up that way.

Sheehan: And let’s not just associate this with New York. I think occurs across all sports and all cities now.

Wulf: My favorite story is from when Don Larsen pitched his perfect game. He used to hang out at a bar on Lexington Avenue, and all the regulars are really excited, and they go, “He’s not going to come in. He’s too big for us now.” And, you know, ten o’clock that night, here comes Larsen. One of the guys.

Leiter: David Wells did that once, and he got his face punched in.

Leitch: And we wonder why people don’t mingle anymore. Speaking of Don Larsen, though: Do championships matter? Patrick Ewing, who is seen as a failure by fans because he never won a title. They don’t consider him an all-time great, and a championship can all come down to John Starks having a bad shooting day.

Sheehan: And Patrick Ewing is a much greater player than, say, Bernard King. But when I think of the Knicks of my childhood, I have none of Patrick Ewing and a bunch of Bernard King. Bernard King was a fun player.

Leiter: He’s appreciated now more than when he played.

Sheehan: Ewing eventually grew into his own skin, but when he was 23 years old, he wasn’t a guy who was going to embrace New York, and then he’s on this team that’s terrible. Who are the athletes least suited to come to New York—the Ed Whitson list? Ewing might be on that.

Wulf: Unfair or not, the championship is a prerequisite to be in the pantheon.

Leitch: Why is basketball barely coming up in this discussion?

Sheehan: I think everybody else has caught up to a certain extent, developmentally. Globally, global basketball. It used to be you’d become a good basketball player in New York by going out and playing basketball every day. And even more so than baseball. This was true about basketball. There’s probably 50 hoops within a couple hundred blocks. But now basketball is about traveling teams and AAU teams and things like that and that’s leveled the playing field. When you’re getting recruited now, you’re getting recruited off of these traveling AAU teams, more so than playing with your high school. I think that’s impacted New York as much as any other source of talent around.

Leiter: If you’re not part of a championship team, there isn’t a lore. The fans just want it so badly. I think that’s why the whole LeBron thing happened. That’s the reality of what New York fans expect. It’s a drought of—how many years since the Knicks won?

Sheehan: Thirty-seven.


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