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A thought experiment: I chant “DER-EK JE-TER!” You say?
If your answer is a Pavlovian series of five claps — “Clap Clap Clapclapclap,” if you will — then chances are good that you’re the target demographic for ESPN’s new seven-part documentary series The Captain.
Airdate: 10 p.m. Monday, July 18 with subsequent episodes on Tuesdays (ESPN)
Director: Randy Wilkins
If your response is a dead-eyed stare, “Yankees suck!” or perhaps something even more profane, The Captain is easily skippable.
Yankees legend Derek Jeter built a career on steady play on the field and inscrutable blandness off of it, and he mostly doesn’t stray from his established brand here. It takes absolutely nothing away from Jeter’s indisputable greatness on the diamond to say that he’s a borderline inert interview or at least to say that over the five hours sent to critics, whatever wall he put up to survive decades in the New York City media spotlight remains in place. Maybe if you bleed pinstripes, a journey through the Yankees dynasty with a guide this less-than-forthcoming will still be gratifying. But everybody else is likely to see The Captain as the sort of Yankees-sponsored piece of hero worship that should have played on the YES Network rather than ESPN.
Note that this is an ongoing problem for the Worldwide Leader, which previously gave Tom Brady, similarly entrenched in his sport’s pantheon and similarly committed to an impenetrable public persona, a ridiculous 10 hours for The Arena. So please don’t think my general antipathy toward The Captain is rooted in my personal fandom. The Captain and The Arena are equally misguided when it comes to duration and failure to get their guarded heroes to engage with any real candor.
Director Randy Wilkins struggles to conquer the bland straight-line to greatness that was Jeter’s career (whether his post-Yankees career, including a failed tenure operating the Marlins, will be better depicted in later episodes is unclear).
Adversity isn’t necessary for good drama, but, man, it helps. In this case, Jeter went from high-school star in Michigan to first-round draft pick to top minor league prospect to near-instant major league start to World Series champion to Hall of Famer, and the bumps in the road were either negligible or evaded.
The challenges of growing up biracial in Kalamazoo obviously weren’t small but, other than serving as a multi-decade origin story for Jeter’s cautious public persona in the NYC fishbowl, it’s treated in nebulous generalities instead of specific anecdotes. Jeter’s struggles in his first minor league season aren’t ignored, but what do you say about those struggles other than, “Yeah, he didn’t hit for a year and then … he did”? From there, Jeter mostly hit more often than he didn’t, was treated as a photogenic media God more often than he wasn’t and won championships more frequently than any other player of his generation. It’s a recipe for a plaque in Cooperstown, not for seven hours of entertainment.
Jeter comes across here, personality-wise, as Michael Jordan-lite, which is appropriate since Jordan is an occasional talking head in the documentary and because ESPN wants you to approach The Captain as a companion piece to The Last Dance. This is a bad comparison — both because Jordan’s supercilious ego is a more clearly delineated disposition than whatever Jeter is affecting at any moment, and because Jordan’s professional arc was marked by more narratively friendly obstacles, like his gambling addiction, his baseball career, the Pistons, and so on.
The Last Dance director Jason Hehir also smartly realized that while Jordan is prone to clamming up at inopportune moments, if you treat the supporting pieces of a sports dynasty as comparably important, they can pick up story slack as required. While The Last Dance is Michael Jordan’s biography first and foremost, it’s simultaneously the story of the 1997-98 Bulls, including Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson.
The Captain is not the story of the Yankees dynasty. It’s the story of Derek Jeter and his centrality to the Yankees dynasty. The series doesn’t lack other voices from those teams, ranging from longtime manager Joe Torre and executive Brian Cashman to fellow standouts like Mariano Rivera, Tino Martinez, Andy Pettite and more, but they’re treated as accessories, with no personalities or backstories. It’s fun to play the “Who’s missing and how much must that mean Derek Jeter hated them?” game, and nearly as fun to play the “Which talking heads is Derek Jeter extra-vague about?” game. The answer to that second question is Cashman and longtime frenemy Alex Rodriguez, whose diplomacy in discussing Jeter is matched only by Jeter’s obliqueness in discussing Rodriguez and Cashman.
A-Rod is here a lot, because Wilkins isn’t bad at acknowledging the things you want a Derek Jeter documentary to acknowledge, which isn’t the same as digging deeply into those things. If Jeter doesn’t want to play ball, so to speak, and Jeter is the sole focus of your story, there isn’t much you can do when he gives answers so carefully worded that they become irrelevant, which he definitely does when it comes to A-Rod. Listen to Jeter’s answers on subjects like his limitations on defense or when referring to certain former teammates. Note how the documentary mentions the names of exactly zero of Jeter’s tabloid-friendly former flames (and none appear). When the documentary brings up the notorious tale of the swag bags Jeter gave out to one-night stands, he makes fun of the specific New York Post story and says it wasn’t true, but that isn’t the same as denying the details in the story. His response is calculated and cold, perhaps suggesting that the Jeter persona was a brilliant feint rather than naturally vanilla.
After four episodes of strict chronology and upward mobility, the fifth episode is the only one to really push on the things that make Jeter uncomfortable, and that’s entertaining no matter how little he adds. The episode brings up, in more depth than any time previously, the role Jeter’s race played in his presented identity and whether he could or should have been more vocal on social justice issues. He’s nearly silent, using the time to plug his charitable foundation, but when Wilkins shows him an interview in which an older white reporter makes the truly ill-considered decision to call Jeter “colorless,” Jeter pounces aggressively and re-directs the conversation entirely onto the tactless scribe and not the point said reporter was making badly. He’s able to make the story reflect on the out-of-touch media instead of him, and honestly I was more impressed by the acrobatics of that tactic than the earlier episodes that are mostly variations on, “Hey, remember that time Derek Jeter flipped the ball?” or “Hey, remember that time Derek Jeter ran into the stands?”
Despite Spike Lee’s name as executive producer, The Captain is resolutely style-less. Maybe you could argue that the lack of visual flash or flexibility with structure was meant to honor its workmanlike subject. But was that really ever the true Jeter? For years, he was calm (but not without fire), subdued (but not without on-field flash) and conservative (but not without that roster of A-list romantic companions). Those are attributes that kept New York City from ever turning on him, and guaranteed that even if rival fans enjoyed booing him, there were always easier Yankees to hate. It was a smart and lucrative strategy for a baseball player, but a boring blueprint for a documentary series that’s never badly made, but rarely revealing.
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