Jeter and Donovan hang up their shoes
This article originally appeared in our October 2014 print issue.
2014 is the final season for two American sports icons. New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, 40, was long considered an elite in his sport. USA soccer star Landon Donovan, 32, could not quite claim the same stature, playing a game dominated by Europeans and South Americans. Nonetheless, for about a decade, Donovan was the undisputed face of American men’s soccer (USMNT).
Neither Jeter nor Donovan are leaving silently. Jeter was honored with farewell ceremonies by every team he faced in 2014. The Toronto Blue Jays honored Jeter Canadian-style with a three day trip to Banff.
Donovan, meanwhile, is regularly praised by Major League Soccer (MLS), the league he’s basically stuck with since being lent to the San José Earthquakes by Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen in 2000.
Both Jeter and Donovan have amassed great statistics. Jeter is the first Yankee to reach baseball’s celebrated 3000 hit mark, and will retire 6th on baseball’s all time hit list. While considered a poor defender by statisticians, Jeter has fooled fans and award voters with highlight worthy defensive efforts including a painful 2004 crowd dive against the rival Red Sox, and an iconic “flip” in the 2001 playoffs that narrowly beat Oakland’s Jeremy Giambi to home-plate.
Donovan, meanwhile, is the MLS’s and USMNT’s all time leading scorer and has scored five times in world cup play. His most memorable goal was an injury time tiebreaker against Algeria in the 2010 world cup, which qualified the USA for the round of 16.
Donovan’s and Jeter’s legacies are built not just on talent, but on the opportunities they were given to continuously play for a single fan base. Jeter has been a Yankee for his entire 20-year career, after dreaming of being the Yankees’s shortstop as a child. For the past eleven seasons Jeter has been the Yankees’s Captain. Unlike in hockey, the role of Captain is generally only assigned to a baseball player who it is assumed will play most or all of their career with their current team. Jeter smoothly fills this role, speaking with a leader’s confidence, while simultaneously sticking to the formulaic talking points expected from professional athletes.
Donovan’s speaking style is the opposite of Jeter’s. Donovan’s answers to interview questions are often short and timid, yet what his speech lacks in flare is made up for in meaning. When Donovan was shockingly left off the USMNT’s 2014 world cup roster by German coach Jurgen Klinsmann, Donovan admitted to reporters that he secretly routed against the USMNT following the news. Donovan faced flack both for these comments, and for criticizing Klinsmann’s tactics in the USA’s round of 16 match against Belgium.
Donovan didn’t just break the script with honesty and frustration — he also broke it with humor. He appeared in a commercial for EA Sport’s 2014 FIFA World video game, in which he grumpily games in a USA robe, singing: “I’m not going to Brazil.”
While Jeter won over fans by proudly playing his Yankee roll, Donovan gained support by expressing his feelings against the coach who had disappointed many USA fans by cutting him. Donovan’s willingness to speak his mind and commit to the USMNT and MLS rather than bend to the expectations of the soccer establishment, is just as important to his legacy as his talent.
Donovan’s decision to play for the San José Earthquakes rather than return to Germany has been attributed to his homesickness, as was his decision to stay with the Los Angeles Galaxy over Everton of the English Premier League. Overall, Donovan established himself as an American hometown sport hero through playing for the USA in 3 world cups and playing in 14 MLS seasons. To top things off, Donovan got symbolic revenge on Klinsmann by scoring on Bayern Munich’s/Germany’s world cup winning goalie Manuel Neuer in the 2014 MLS All-Star game.
In this era of free agency, where athletes are seen as individual-stat accumulators rather than team icons, players like Jeter and Donovan are a rare breed. Jeter’s assumed replacement as face of the Yankees, Robinson Cano, left the team last winter, signing a surprise deal with Seattle. Meanwhile, MLS is not yet a top fleet league, meaning it is unlikely that other players of Donovan’s talent would allow homesickness to let them commit to it rather than try for success in Europe.
Being a sports fan is not just about watching talent, it’s about watching a (somewhat repetitive, yet nonetheless captivating) theatrical presentation. With Jeter and Donovan gone, soccer and baseball will continue to have talented performers, but the sports will have a notable absence of protagonists.