The racial identity of Derek Jeter was hardly discussed during his 20-season career with the New York Yankees.
The first five minutes of “The Captain,” ESPN’s seven-part documentary on Jeter that follows pal Michael Jordan (“The Last Dance”) and Tom Brady (“Man In The Arena”), immediately jumps to the point.
“When I conceived the story in my mind, race was absolutely going to be a part of it,” director and producer Randy Wilkins told USA TODAY Sports. “I think it’s something that wasn’t talked about enough throughout his career. I think it was something that was largely ignored for various reasons.”
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Yes, the series covers Jeter’s ascendance from Midwestern standout to worldwide superstar, but it also focuses on how the Jeter family felt racism while Derek and sister Sharlee grew up during the 1980s and 1990s in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Episode 1 airs Monday at 10 p.m. on ESPN after the Home Run Derby and on Thursdays through Aug. 11. The sixth and seventh installments are still being edited and mixed, Wilkins said.
Race in Derek Jeter’s ‘origin story’
Wilkins wanted to show that Jeter’s bi-racial identity impacted who he was on and off the field. The player and person viewers see later on are shaped by experiences as the son of a Black father and white mother.
“So I think that was important to include immediately in his origin story because it helped shape his worldview and then we get into it at different points throughout the rest of the series,” Wilkins said.
Early in the first episode, Jeter’s father, Charles, and mother, Dorothy, appear and talk about raising bi-racial children. Jeter said he always remembered other people staring at his family while they were out in public.
Sportswriter calls Derek Jeter ‘racially neutral’
Major League Baseball clubhouses aren’t the most welcoming places for conversations on race in the present day, let alone two decades ago. Journalists didn’t ask questions about it.
“You talk about race, religion, or politics, figured you were in a no-win situation and you’re going to upset some fans and you’re going to upset some organizations,” Jeter said in the film.
In Episode 5, longtime New York sportswriter Wallace Matthews, who is white, called Jeter “racially neutral” and “almost colorless, not only physically but in the way he spoke.”
“If Derek Jeter was out there talking about the issues that Black people were facing, the public would have turned on him as well, because the public turns on everyone who calls out American racism,” said author and ESPN writer Howard Bryant, who is Black.
The man behind the pinstripes
“The Captain” is appropriately titled because it almost entirely focuses on Jeter’s career with the Yankees. There is discussion about his upbringing, and Episode 7 serves as an “epilogue” that revolves around his family life, time as Marlins’ CEO and family.
The finale also includes “a personal traumatic moment with he and his wife, Hannah, and something that happened in their family that he shares with us,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins’ core mission was to figure out what made Jeter tick.
“The things that he considers character flaws,” Wilkins said. “How important loyalty and trust are to him. How important family is – and getting into the why family is important to him.
“And once we were getting into that, I knew we had a well-rounded story because we were kind of filling in the blanks people didn’t know about Derek.”
Other highlights from ‘The Captain’
Be on the lookout for the draft footage. Jeter, the sixth overall pick in the 1992 MLB draft, expected to go No. 1 or fifth, he said in the film. Reactions from the Jeter home are priceless and the footage of how MLB conducted its draft makes it all seem like 100 years ago instead of 30.
Dorothy Jeter is insightful in all of her appearances.
New York, pre-9/11.
An anecdote about Jeter’s belly button.
An unnecessary amount of Jeter’s inside-out singles to right field.
Derek Jeter looked for one pitch in his career while at the plate: fastball down the middle.
Beware the blue background
Jeter definitely lets his guard down – these episodes will require an explicit tag! – compared to his deflective yet polite exchanges with the media. But to call him an open book would be a stretch.
The captain is at his most comedic (and most real) during an interview he did with Wilkins in front of a blue background. Wilkins had completed hours upon hours of other interviews at that point and presented Jeter with others’ comments, which lead to some revealing reactions from No. 2. His trash-talking proficiency is on full display throughout.
“That’s what losers say,” Jeter said about Nomar Garciaparra’s claim that the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry had little hate attached.
Who else is in the documentary?
Wilkins interviewed about 90 people for the project, he said, and typically spent three or four hours with the person. Contemporaries and teammates make appearances throughout to provide perspective and tell stories with actual details, a welcome departure from the diplomatic Jeter (who does give a breakdown of his social calendar on the New York nightclub scene).
Among those who make appearances are: Jordan, Fat Joe, Eli Manning, Desus Nice and The Kid Mero, and various childhood friends.
Yankees: Brian Cashman, Joe Torre, Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill, Willie Randolph, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte.
Derek Jeter, privacy, fame and the media
Jeter made himself available before and after almost every game but never really said anything. Not being a great quote was “by design,” Jeter said.
“I didn’t try to make their job difficult,” Jeter said of the media. “I tried to make my job easy.”
He was a constant presence in the tabloids, from gift baskets to girlfriends.
“I drew the line at a very young age and I just wasn’t going to let them cross it,” Jeter said.
In Episode 5, Jeter said there are certain things he will not talk about to protect people he loves.
“He was nothing like the guy that people saw for 20 years with the Yankees organization,” Wilkins said. “I think the way to get him there was to build trust with him. He’s big on loyalty.
“Man to man, there was a trust that was built and a comfort-level.”
‘The Captain’ schedule on ESPN
- Episode 1: Monday, July 18, 10 p.m. ET
- Episode 2: Thursday, July 21, 9 p.m. ET
- Episode 3: Thursday, July 28, 9 p.m. ET
- Episode 4: Thursday, July 28, 10 p.m. ET
- Episode 5: Thursday, Aug. 4, 9 p.m. ET
- Episode 6: Thursday, Aug. 4, 10 p.m. ET
- Episode 7: Thursday, Aug. 11, 10 p.m. ET
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.