The ESPN Body Issue is a clever and creative response to the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Rather than try and create a copy as other magazines have done, ESPN went one step further using athletes naked as an “ode to exceptional athletic form.” That it’s done to spur sales and create buzz goes without mention.
Mike Francesa sounded like he was about to burst into a teary rendition of Centerfold by the J. Geils Band when discussing Matt Harvey’s participation. It’s no secret that Francesa has developed a borderline disturbing man-crush on Harvey. One can only wonder whether Andy Pettitte feels like a member of the first wives’ club as Francesa is throwing him over for the younger, stronger Harvey.
Francesa couldn’t hide his disappointment in Harvey taking part in the ESPN Magazine Body Issue going so far as to say that Harvey’s demeanor had been Derek Jeter-like in not making any stupid and embarrassing mistakes in his young career. Harvey’s rise has been meteoric, but is this as much of a misstep as Francesa implies?
Much like it’s preferable for a young pitcher like Zack Wheeler to come to the big leagues and scuffle rather than dominate making the game look easy only to be jolted later on, it’s also preferable for Harvey to be the person he is rather than transform himself into the mythic idol that Jeter has become. For Jeter, his position as the ideal for so many has resulted in a level of expectation that no one could match. He’s almost been deified to the degree that when something, anything happens that could possibly tarnish that image, it evolves into a giant story where, if it were another player, it would either be shrugged off or ignored.
In short, the Jeter image has shunned any pretense of reality. When he first started in the majors, Jeter had the guidance from his parents as well as baseball people Don Zimmer, Joe Torre and Buck Showalter. It also helped Jeter that, as a rookie, he was surrounded by players like Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden from whom he could learn and ask questions of what precisely not to do. His supposed playboy lifestyle with one starlet after another is winked and nodded at because he’s Derek Jeter. That it’s more of a show than anything else is beside the point.
With Jeter there has never been a public paternity question; never been a DUI; never been a bar fight or incident captured on cellphone camera of Jeter acting the fool. He’s guarded and careful with that image. In some instances it has turned into ridiculous expectations such as when he feigned being hit by a pitch against the Rays and took first base even though he hadn’t been hit. Parents were wondering how they could explain to their children how Derek Jeter could be so cavalier about fair play. This isn’t a carefully camouflaged, Christianity-tinged commercial from The Foundation for a Better Life in which the high school basketball player admits he touched the ball before it went out of bounds as a show of sportsmanship and Jeter was under no obligation to say he wasn’t hit when the ump told him to go to first base. The idea that he was “supposed” to do that because it was the “right” thing is ludicrous.
The one play that helped launch Jeter occurred in the 1996 ALCS against the Orioles when his deep fly ball was ably assisted out of the park by young fan Jeffrey Maier. It would not have gone out of the park if not for Maier and the Yankees might not have won that ALCS. Who knows how history would have been altered had they not won that first championship in 1996? Would Jeter turn the homer down in the interest of “fair play”? Of course not.
Jeter’s legend has grown to the level where it’s gone from he won’t take a misstep to he can’t take a misstep. That’s not an easy way to live. Harvey has the supermodel girlfriend and appears to be enjoying his success. He did the ESPN shoot and doesn’t need to explain nor apologize for it. Perhaps it would’ve helped Jeter if he’d pulled a Charles Barkley at some point and gone into an “I am not a role model” rant. Harvey probably wasn’t thinking that the appearance in the ESPN photo shoot would take a hammer to this image that the likes of Francesa were thrusting upon him, but it will have that affect. In the long run it’s a good thing.
There’s no question that Jeter is a player to emulate. For young stars including Harvey, he’s someone whose lead to follow, but that doesn’t mean the self should be superseded toward that end especially to live up to the dreamy expectations of someone like Mike Francesa.