The fifth episode of ESPN’s new docuseries “The Captain” acknowledges the challenge of deciphering its chosen subject. Derek Jeter may have been a great shortstop and an iconic Yankees player, but his team’s rise and fall paralleled the history of New York sports dynasties in general. But he’s also a very cautious (read: dull) interviewer, according to both him and the several disgruntled journalists who couldn’t get past his veneer.
Jeter says in front of the camera, with a real grin, “That’s by design. For the allegedly in-depth docuseries on his own life, he even adds that “there are things I still won’t talk about” in this particular context. The core of Randy Wilkins’ “The Captain,” which can typically only delve as deeply as Jeter himself will permit, is that paradox.
According to Jeter, the early episodes paint an image of a model employee who put in a lot of effort, achieved achievement, and avoided distractions at all costs. Jeter typically avoids disclosing anything even vaguely personal, aside from conceding how much his upbringing as a biracial child in Kalamazoo, Michigan, influenced his lifelong “must be twice as good as everyone else” mentality. Interviews with Jeter’s Black father, White mother, and multiracial sister highlight this point, demonstrating how false it is for white journalists to refer to Jeter as “colorless” (a phrase used by a Yankees beat reporter in a later episode, much to Jeter’s obvious and unusual rage).
This conversation regarding how people perceive Jeter as a star and a Black player who received passes from others even on his team proved to be quite fascinating . The series’ investigation into what made Jeter such a phenomenon has only recently begun, which feels far too late even if it was intended to keep casual ESPN viewers interested when they may have switched the channel at the first mention of race.
Jeter maintains his career norm of making his quotes as simple as possible when discussing baseball. The contrast between him and someone like his more flamboyant adversary turned teammate Alex Rodriguez, who throws up his hands about putting his foot in his mouth while Jeter sits through a tight smile, couldn’t be more pronounced. “The Captain” inevitably turns into a deep look at the Yankees of the late 1990s and early 2000s as a cultural force while remaining anchored to Jeter’s presence as its narrative constant. However, Jeter’s interview is far from being the most revealing in the series.
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There’s a lot to think about here if you’re a baseball fan in general or even just aware of the Yankees’ utter dominance around the turn of the century. Not only is A-Rod present with Jeter, but also Dave Winfield, Mariano Rivera, Daryl Strawberry, Jorge Posada, and manager Joe Torre. When the Yankees and Derek Jeter were at their best, prominent New York sports journalists would occasionally add their perspectives to explain how and why these two entities came to be what they were. With Jeter serving as the film’s primary protagonist, “The Captain” isn’t able to satisfactorily explore the specifics of what made the Yankees so successful or, when they lost against a club like the 2004 Boston Red Sox, so discouraging.
Jeter is constantly on guard against spilling too much information, so the show occasionally finds it difficult to convey anything new about him. But this reticence also makes it much more telling when he does crack, even just a little. Despite its subject’s best efforts, “The Captain” becomes even more compelling when Jeter allows himself to be a little bit petulant, haughty, or a sorrier loser than his meticulously courteous post-match interviews would suggest.