A sunny afternoon, March 1999. Inside the tiny press box atop Joker Marchant Stadium, Florida home of the Detroit Tigers and one of the very last gloriously rickety spring-training ballparks. A routine ground ball bounces lazily past the mound and just to the left of the shortstop for the visiting New York Yankees. He glides two steps, is in perfect fielding position … and then flails at the ball as if he’d been thrown a dirty diaper. “Wow,” says the Tigers’ official scorer. “Are we allowed to give the golden boy an error?”
In sarcasm, there is truth. Jeter’s moments of awkwardness are so rare as to be glaring. This is the first requirement for New York’s reigning Natural. Desire and sweat are fine, but they can’t be advertised, and the moving parts must never show. It’s okay to get your uniform dirty, but you must somehow still radiate a glow through the mud. So smooth-swinging Mickey Mantle could be the Natural; awkward Yogi Berra never could.
There are other traits the Natural must possess. He should be pretty: See Mantle, Frank Gifford, Joe Namath. He needs to play on a championship team. Race surely helped elevate Mantle over Willie Mays in the popularity standings, but put Mantle in the Polo Grounds center field with those mediocre Giants teams, and he loses his luster.
The Natural needs to have grown up in front of our eyes. New York’s fans need to feel that we’ve seen the Natural grow from raw, precocious talent to polished, dominant veteran. Jeter rose through the Yankees minors and arrived in the Bronx in 1996, at the shiny age of 21, accompanied by – crucially – a slowly building drumbeat, not heralding trumpets.
Which fits with another element: remoteness. This allows New York’s celebrity machine to weave the Natural’s myth. Everybody loved Walt Frazier when the Knicks were winning, but, with the furs and the hats and the white Rolls, Frazier was too exuberant to be Natural; plodding but unknowable Bill Bradley was the anointed one. The still-unchallenged template in this regard is Joe DiMaggio. Silent by nature, even surly, DiMaggio was savvy enough to understand how mystery fed his aura.
Some of the conditions do change with the times. DiMaggio rode a current of immigrant pride, and his 56-game hitting streak was a sweet diversion as World War II loomed. Namath swung in with the brash, long-haired, sexed-up late sixties. And Jeter, the child of a white mom and a black dad, is perfect for our polyglot new millennium.
The last, cruelest requirement is that the Natural make us all young. Because the Natural really is about us, not him. In a grimy, noisy city where every day is a battle, where fortunes and legends are made but compromises and disappointments pile up faster than ballpark peanut shells, we need an athlete who makes it all look easy. And that grace is Derek Jeter’s greatest gift.