Baseball’s All-Star break marks one of the quietest weeks of the U.S. sporting calendar. MLB is off, the NBA has settled into its off-season, NFL training camps open in full swing next week. So it’s an opportune time for ESPN to debut—and endlessly promote—a documentary about one of the most consequential sports icons of the last quarter century. The Captain, a seven-part series that debuts on the network following tonight’s Home Run Derby, covers the career of New York Yankees Hall of Famer Derek Jeter, a player who served as the face of his sport for two decades. He was a dynamic shortstop who, by dint of his status of leading man for a team based in the media capital of the word—and that won four World Series in his first five seasons—resonated in the broader culture. Since his retirement from New York Yankees almost eight years ago, baseball’s been desperately searching for Jeter’s successor.
Like another sports documentary exploring an icon, The Last Dance, this Jeter project will roll out new episodes every week, through August 11. (The first five installments were available for media to view). And like The Last Dance, the story is told from the point of view of its subject. But the project is more than just hours of eye-rolling hagiography. Jeter grapples with his racial identity, a subject rarely discussed during his playing days, his fraught relationship with fellow superstar—and eventual Yankee teammate—Alex Rodriguez, and even some of this forays into the tabloid gossip pages. On the eve of The Captain’s debut, Jeter discussed these, and other, subjects with TIME.
(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity)
TIME: One revelation from this documentary: when you were a kid, you and your dad used to compete against each other while watching The Price Is Right. What pricing games were the focal point?
Jeter: We’d do all of it. I used to go to afternoon kindergarten afterwards. And we’d sit down and we’d watch The Price Is Right. We guessed the prices and my dad would just enjoy beating me [at the game]. As I said in the doc, it could be some form of child abuse.
I get it now, because I have three girls. You have to teach them, life isn’t easy. Nothing is going to be given to you.
So did that instill a little bit of early competitiveness in you?
No question. We used to compete at everything. Checkers, tic-tac-toe. I still remember the first time I beat him one-on-one in basketball. It’s this sense of accomplishment.
How did this documentary come about? Why now?
It came to be when when I was told to anticipate a call to get inducted into the Hall of Fame. I said, ‘Well, you know, I wanted to film it.’ Because my girls have never seen me play before and I just wanted to have the footage for myself. And it just turned into a little bit of a deeper conversation. And this is where we are now.
What did that experience ignite, where you wanted to take things further?
I was really hesitant to do it. And when I saw it, I started thinking, during my career, I never had a chance to reflect on any accomplishments. It was always, ‘What’s next?’ When you get that call to go the Hall of Fame, it’s really the first time I got a chance to sit down and just reflect on my career. So I thought, ‘If you’re going to do it, do it now.’ I sort of just dove right in.
There are some parallels here to The Last Dance. Mandalay Sports Media is a producer on both films, and Michael Jordan even appears in your documentary. Did the success of The Last Dance help propel it forward or change anything about it?
I don’t really think so. The Last Dance captivated the whole world. It aired when sports was completely shut down. You didn’t need to be a sports fan to watch. There are a lot of people that are doing documentaries. And I always like to learn about people in all types of professions, and see their journey.
Your agent, Casey Close, and your media platform, The Players’ Tribune, were producers for the film. How involved were you in the process? Did you have last say as to what went into the documentary?
Well, I was involved in the process. I wouldn’t say I have the last say. The only thing that I wanted to make sure of is that if I’m going to give my perspective, in any particular situation, anyone else that was involved in that situation, I wanted to hear from them, as well. Because I didn’t want it to be a one-sided documentary. I want it to be real.
The film explores your background growing up biracial in Kalamazoo, Mich. You were called the N-word as a kid. How does something like that affect you?
A dose of reality. Regardless of how much success you may think you have, there’s always going to be ignorant people. It’s not just erased because you’ve had any level of success.
You also stalked about how you and your family were always being stared at. How did that affect you?
I always noticed and I was constantly looking around. I remember speaking to my wife, when we first met, she said ‘You’re always looking around.’ It just makes you think back to when you’re a child and you’re looking to see who’s staring. Obviously as you have more success in your career, people may be looking for other reasons. It’s an awareness thing. You couldn’t get away from it.
In one of the episodes, sports journalist Wallace Matthews says to the camera: “Derek Jeter does not identify racially … He just seemed to be racially neutral. Derek Jeter was almost colorless, not only physically, but also in the way he spoke.” In the documentary, that comment seemed to bother you. Why?
It speaks for itself. You can’t have a comment where you’re speaking for me when you’ve never asked the question about how I identify. It was something that caught me off guard and there was a real and genuine reaction.
So many athletes talk about and are engaged with social issues today. You were not known for that. Was it because you were not asked these kinds of questions? Or was it more because you were concerned about taking attention away from baseball, and the job at hand?
When I was playing, more of the focus was on the field. That’s what my job was to do. And look, let’s be candid, I think athletes nowadays are a lot more comfortable speaking out on their own. They have their own platforms to do it. And you don’t necessarily have to be asked about it to give your opinion, which is good. When I was playing I wasn’t asked about it. But I think there’s all types of ways that you can speak up. I’ve had a foundation for 20-plus years that’s touched on social issues throughout my career, and still to this day. We were still addressing it.
If you were still playing in 2016, when Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, and someone asked you for your reaction, what would you have said?
I would have said it’s not about kneeling for the anthem. He was kneeling for a reason. I don’t think it was anti-America. It was for something that he’s standing up for. And the same thing when I was down in Miami, with the team … peaceful protests. In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with those. It draws attention to make you have uncomfortable conversations. And that’s the only way you’re going to have any change in the world, is to have those conversations. There has to be a start.
Another major theme of the documentary is your relationship with Alex Rodriguez. The two of you were close when you were younger, but the relationship changed after he made unflattering comments about you in Esquire magazine back in the early 2000s. In the documentary, you talk about your ability to cut people off. You say you’re not proud of it. Where did that ability come from?
I don’t know. It’s just how I think. In my mind, you have a close knit group of friends. I’ve had that same close group for a long, long time. I’m a very, very loyal person. I don’t necessarily know if it’s a good thing, but it got me to where I am.
In the film, Alex says he stands by his comments. He said they were “totally fair.” Did that bother you?
I have no issues with Alex. None whatsoever. We’ve had conversations. The past is the past. It’s over and done with. You’ve got to remember, this was a long, long time ago. People evolve over time and they change. You have life experiences. I have zero issues with Alex.
Should Alex be in the Hall of Fame?
I don’t vote. I don’t vote so I think it’s, time will tell.
You also address the 2011 New York Post story that said you left gift baskets for women after one-night stands. You deny that ever happened. When you read that story at the time, what was your reaction?
There are a lot of times people make things up, right? This one single story took on a life of its own. To this day, people talk about it. That’s why I was asked about it. It’s just, how do people even come up with it?
Is it good that you get to clear the air on some of this stuff in a documentary like this?
I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s trying to clear the air. I didn’t go into it saying I want to clear the air on this issue or that issue. We just discussed a lot of things that happened over 20-plus years. And it was a question that came up. When I sat down and said I was going to do it, I said I was going to be honest about it. So feel free to ask.
Turning to some stuff around baseball … Jeter Downs, the Boston Red Sox rookie named after you, hit his first career home run in Yankee Stadium today [Sunday, July 17]. You’ve wished him good luck on Twitter … “unless you are playing the Yankees.” Are you happy to see him hit a home run?
The Yankees won, 13-2.
Oh, well there you have it. Good for him.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has talked about installing robo-umps in Major League Baseball by 2024. Are you in favor?
As long as they get it right. You have so much technology in the world to help you get it correct, that I don’t see any reason why not.
If you were made commissioner of baseball tomorrow, what would you try to change right away?
Man, I just don’t like shift. I think it confuses fans. Watching games, you see a hard hit ball to the right side or the left side, you think it’s a hit, but you see another infielder halfway in the outfield making a play, so I just think you’d have more action in the game if that was gone.
Before this season you left your job as CEO of the Miami Marlins, saying in a statement that “the vision for the future of the franchise is different than the one I signed up to lead.” What was different?
You’re going to have to wait to see the rest of the documentary.
So the last two episodes deal with that?
[Laughs] Maybe. You’ll have to tune in.
You have a new sportswear brand out, called Greatness Wins. Wayne Gretzky and Misty Copeland are also involved. How did this come about?
I was approached by Chris Riccobono. He started Untuckit. He had an idea of starting a new athletic brand that really focused on quality and fit and performance and consistency and sustainability. And we had conversations for a long time about it. And one thing that I wanted to make sure that Chris understood was anytime you started talking about greatness or achieving greatness, I think a lot of times people look at it as being a goal. I look at it as a mindset. That’s what the brand is based off of. You know, I think I’ve learned quite a bit throughout my career in terms of quality and fit and performance. And there’s things that you love. And there’s things that you may do a little bit differently.
What do you hope people take away from the documentary?
How I handled myself in New York was all by design. There was no blueprint for success. New York is a challenging place to play and I love that. It’s the best place in the world to play, the best organization with by far the best fans. That’s just how I handled it while I was there. I have a chance to look back and give you my perspective of when I was going through it, and how I think about it now.
You’re pretty honest about how, in your dealings with the press, you tried to keep things simple and not create any controversies and distractions. Tom Brady recently talked about this, about how “90% of what I say is not what I’m thinking.” As you say, it was all be design. But the public never got to know the “real Derek.” Do you have any regrets about your approach?
No. That works. I was in New York for 20 years. I am extremely happy with how my career played out.
July 19, 2022 at 04:39AM Sean Gregory