With a lesser player, perhaps this would seem like a lesser transgression.
If Derek Jeter was just another guy playing just another game, just another guy in a dirty uniform scrapping away, perhaps this would seem like nothing at all. It would be a case of boys being boys. It would be someone trying to find a edge. It would be, well, baseball.
Ah, but this is Jeter the elegant, Jeter the dignified, Jeter the regal. Jeter has spent his entire career above the mess and beyond reproach. He has been the most admired man in his sport, carrying himself with a uncommon class that even the fans of his rivals could not help but admire. It is permissible to detest the Yankees, but who has ever had a bad word to say about Jeter?
Until you keep seeing replays of Jeter performing scenes from Death of a Salesman in the seventh inning of Wednesday night's game against the Rays.
By now, you have seen the video of Chad Qualls' pitch hitting the knob of Jeter's bat as he spun around. It was like hitting the bottom of a pool cue. And suddenly, Jeter was in absolute agony. It was like he was one of those Western outlaws who had just had the gun shot from his hand by Wyatt Earp. There hasn't been this much torment to a guy's hand since Darth Vader sliced off Luke Skywalker's in the Empire Strikes Back.
And the umpires bought it. All of it. Why, this is Jeter. It would be beneath a guy of Jeter's golden reputation to fake such a play, wouldn't it? Never mind the crack of the bat. Never mind the ball shooting toward the infield as it never would have if it had hit skin.
Alex Rodriguez? Why, sure, A-Rod might fake it. Heck, he has faked a lot of his career, hasn't he? You don't have to squint to picture him trying to fool the umpires.
He once yelled at an infielder trying to catch a popup. He once pawed at the glove of a player trying to tag him.
Dustin Pedroia? Yeah, you could believe this of Pedroia, who I admire greatly for his grit and his spunk. If someone was going to do anything to win, you could believe it of Pedroia. For that matter, you could believe it of most players.
Just to make things clear, I have no problem with Jeter taking first base. If he had dropped his bat and jogged to first, well, that's his job. He's not there to help the umpire avoid looking foolish. I don't expect infielders to admit if they miss a tag, and I don't expect baserunners to say they were really out, and I don't expect batters to say, "Yeah, I went too far on that check swing.'' In that world, you don't need umpires. Or, for that matter, Oscars. So, no, I wouldn't expect Jeter to admit the ball didn't hit him.
What bothers me are the dramatics that Jeter went to, the over-the-top, ham-it-up, play-pretend con job that helped convince the umpires the good captain had been plunked. On the border of gamesmanship and sportsmanship, that was the part that crossed the line.
Yes, there is such a line. For all you might say about "winning at all costs,'' most baseball players know there is such a thing as going too far. Remember when A-Rod pawed at the glove of a player who was trying to tag him out? Remember when he yelled at another who was trying to catch a pop fly? Remember when he dared to run across the pitcher's mound during a game?
In each of those incidents, most fans simply rolled their eyes at another of A-Rod's transgressions. And if it had been A-Rod who had done a Nancy Kerrigan imitation Wednesday night instead of Jeter, ESPN would have blown up from trying to wedge 65 minutes worth of replays into an hour.
So doesn't Jeter deserve the same scorn? Or, given the moral high ground of his career, a little more?
Mostly, this was disappointing because most of us think so much of Jeter. If there was one player in the game you might have thought was above role-play, it was Jeter. If there was one player who you suspected stood for something more, it is this generation's Joe DiMaggio.
Today, Jeter has lost something, and baseball has lost something, and the rest of us have lost something, too.
Here's another question: Do you think that perhaps, just perhaps, Jeter's reputation is one reason the umpires were so willing to believe him? Do you think that if it were another player, say the Rays' B.J. Upton, that the umps wouldn't have looked at Jeter's hand the way other umps once looked at Cleon Jones' shoes?
If you are looking for goats, of course, you can add the umpires to this one. Think of it like this: None of the four umpires saw the ball hit Jeter — we know this because the ball never hit Jeter — and still, Jeter was awarded first base (later, he would score the tying run) and, possibly, a Purple Heart.
Here we go again, a big call in a big game leading us one step closer to instant replay. Remember all the blown calls from last postseason? Remember the case of the disappearing perfect game?
At this point, baseball needs to take replay seriously. Let's face it: Everyone at home has replay. They know when a call is butchered. So why withhold it from the people (the umpires) who need it most? For crying out loud, this is baseball. Most of the close plays happen at four distinct pieces of geography.
Do that, and maybe the umpires wouldn't need Jeter's help.
At its very nature, baseball is a game of deception, of phantom tags and stolen signs, of hidden ball tricks and trapped fly balls, of scuffed balls and corked bats. It isn't golf. It isn't tennis. It's a shame, but sometimes can be too costly. On the other hand, bad acting can never be forgiven. Ask Keanu Reeves.
So how bad was this? Oh, it wasn't as bad as taking steroids. It wasn't as bad as fixing the World Series. On the other hand, it was worse than a phantom tag or blocking a bag without the ball. If I had to guess, I'd rate it somewhere even with the World Series game where Minnesota's Kent Hrbek pulled the Braves' Ron Gant off the bag.
Frankly, it was beneath Derek Jeter, who seems somewhat less pristine today than he was before.
Shame, Derek. You're better than that.