Derek Jeter: Exemplary Baseball Player

What makes an exemplary baseball player? It is philosophical question that we could answer many ways. We might cite ideals, rules or expectations associated with the game. We might reflect on issues of preference, popularity or professionalism. We could also look for an exemplar that embodies what is good, true and beautiful in baseball. 

Derek Jeter is precisely such an exemplar. The language of exemplars marks a distinct way of discussing Jeter amidst a flurry of accolades as he approaches the end of his career. Major League commissioner Bud Selig has called him “an exemplary face of our sport” and that MLB “has had no finer ambassador than Derek Jeter” in all of Selig’s tenure. Nike released a tribute to Number Two with the tagline “RE2PECT.” It featured a wide range of players, celebrities and fans (even those of the Red Sox!) tipping their caps to him. What is going on here? It is more than just advertising. It is more than just respect. Indeed, it is admiration of an exemplar. 

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Jeter’s virtuous sportsmanship has commended him across-the-board. Over two decades on the field, he has earned consistent admiration from fans and fellow players alike. Why is Derek so admired? In addition to his merits as a shortstop and as a team captain, he comports himself with utmost class. He plays cleanly and honestly. He loves the sport. He supports and leads his teammates. He is consistently upbeat, often even smiling winsomely when he strikes out. He appears both indomitable and joyful.

This is not a charade. It is who he is as a baseball player. And people find that admirable. Performance-enhancing drugs have plagued baseball for some time. Jeter has not compromised himself in this regard. Many players hop from team to team. Jeter has stayed with a single team. In contrast to the arrogance that is all-too-common in athletics, Jeter is proof that another way to play is both possible and rewarding. In a cynical age, he carries a freshness of authenticity and purpose.

The philosopher Linda Zagzebski speaks about “exemplarist virtue theory,” in which admiration plays an important role in how we perceive people. In an article for the journal Metaphilosphy, she argues that we can better understand the virtues and other issues in ethics through exemplars who “are identified directly through the emotion of admiration.” While not denying that admiration can go awry, Zagzebski argues from common experiences that it is “generally trustworthy.” 

Zagzebski’s theory does not involve athletics, but I think we can extend it to this realm. As Pope Francis said in is universal intention entrusted to the Apostleship of Prayer for July: “That sports may always be occasions of human fraternity and growth.”

Building on insights from philosophers Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam, Zagzebski suggests thinking about how we come to know basic substances like “water” and “gold.” In both cases, those words “referred to the same thing before and after the discovery of the atomic structure” at their core. Peoples across millennia have known what “water” meant long before chemists determined its hydrogen and oxygen components. People knew and communicated what water was through “direct reference” between the name and the substance embodies in rivers, lakes, ponds, etc.

An analogy can be made between virtue and sports. Virtue is not easily summed up, yet exemplars of virtue help us picture the virtuous life. So too, baseball is not easily summed up. Instead of drafting elaborate or nebulous characterizations of various virtues, we can employ exemplars. “So a virtue is a trait we admire in that person and in persons like that,” Zagzebski writes.

Derek Jeter helps us imagine how one might play the sport with excellence. One could adduce any number of criteria for a great baseball player. Yet to do so may be more complicated than trying to arrive at the chemical composition of a substance. It seems simpler to use “direct reference” between playing baseball and an exemplar of the sport.

By his example, Jeter shows us how to play and appreciate baseball. Just as a person could gesture to Lake Michigan and say, “look, there is water,” it seems we can look at Number Two and say, “Look, there is a baseball player.” 

John Roselle, S.J., is a first-year regent at Marquette University High School.

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