Controlling the narrative

Two all time greats.  Each made a similar announcement within a day of one another.  First, on February 12, the all-time Yankees hits leader, modern baseball legend, and gift basket enthusiast Derek Jeter told his fans via Facebook that 2014 would be his final season playing baseball.  The following night, probably the greatest male figure skater of all time, Evgeni Plushenko, withdrew from the male short program event in front of his home crowd in Sochi due to a back injury, and announced his retirement shortly thereafter…

Both had enjoyed seemingly impossibly long primes and extremely productive careers.  Jeter rose to stardom in the 90’s as part of (and perhaps, at the time, the lowest spot on the totem pole of) the trio of young, large, and promising American League shortstops.1  Jeter would win five World Series, make 13 all-star teams, win five Gold Gloves, win five Silver Sluggers, compile over 3,300 hits, complete dozens of clutch and acrobatic plays, and throb millions of hearts over his 19 (soon to be 20) year career.  Plushenko also came up in the 90’s, winning the World Junior Championships in 1997 as a 14 year old.  He didn’t slow down much from there.  He would medal at five different World Championships (three golds) from 1998-2004, seven different Grand Prixes of Figure Skating (four golds) from 1998-2005, and ten different European Championships, including seven golds spanning 2000-2012.  He famously would become the only figure skater in the modern era to win medals in four Olympics,2 namely silvers in Salt Lake and Vancouver and golds in Torino and Sochi.  National surveys peg him as Russia’s most popular athlete, ahead of all hockey players, boxers, tennis players, and the like.

Both are common subjects for the tabloids.  Both have patronymic middle names (“son of sander” and “son of Viktor,” respectively).  Both have excellent random pop culture lookalikes (Mike “the Situation” Sorrentino and Furio from the Sopranos, respectively).

Both had also battled through injuries and broken-down bodies in recent years.  After Jeter’s improbable 2012 surge, he began a cascade of injuries that continued through the end of last season and may or may not be over.  Plushenko underwent groin surgery after the 2005 Worlds, and would end up fighting off major boo-boos for the rest of his career, which have necessitated a dozen surgeries.

All this brings us to the last day or two.  I’ve just spent time and space making the case that the subjects of the two retirement announcements are similar, but are the contexts really the same?  Jeter’s announcement, all 14-plus paragraphs of it, was carefully and expertly crafted and, likely, pored over with a keen eye numerous times.  The platform of Facebook was, no doubt, selected because it was the best way to reach the most fans in a direct and personal way.  The timing at the beginning of spring training, I’m certain, was not random, as it allows for maximum build-up time while still being tastefully within the baseball portion of the calendar.  Jeter knows that his announcement will set off a season-long farewell tour that will culminate with a four-gamer at home against Baltimore and a last hurrah at Fenway in late September, or, even better, some home playoff games.  It’s how he is choosing to close out his run.

On the other hand, Plushenko’s announcement came on suddenly in front of a hopeful crowd in a moment of dramatic anticipation.  It came on the heels of impressive showings by him not only leading up to the Games, when he was named Russia’s only solo male entrant, but also at the Games just days before the announcement (he placed second in the short program spoke of the team competition, with a personal best score, no less, and placed first in the free skate spoke).  He allegedly hurt himself a bit during the February 11 training session, although he and his coach remained all smiles and no indication of an ongoing issue was given.  On February 13, while warming up for his short program, he winced as he landed a jump, and soon informed the judges of his decision to withdraw (and, imminently, informed the media of his decision to retire).  When confronted at the time, he stated, “I think it’s God saying ‘Evgeni, enough, enough with skating.'”  He also noted, “I am normal people like you.  I am not robot.”  An interesting statement coming from an athlete and showman so lauded in his country for all the reasons he is not normal people like us and is robot.  The predictable flood of cynics began to chirp that his plan all along was to cop out of the individual competitions, which Plushenko denied.

Ultimately, I think the two announcements are two sides of the same coin.  Athletes like controlling their narrative, but usually only great athletes get to do it.  An up-and-comer who redirects too much energy or brain wattage to such things might instead end up on the path of unfulfilled potential (Freddy Adu) or cartoonishness (Chad Ochocinco).  A legend at the end of his or her path, on the other hand, can often fill in the last brushstrokes of their own arc.  Jeter has been long celebrated for carefully grooming his image, and his message shows that he obviously has his final chapter under control.  And although Plushenko’s curtain call was truncated by what could have been bitterness in the face of sudden injury, he really had already planned his Jeter-like farewell tour just by convincing the Russian powers-that-be to slot him into the Olympic lineup, and had secured his grand sendoff just by showing up in Sochi.  His stellar performances earlier in the week were icing on the cake, as he had already orchestrated a suitable finale.  Regardless of how injured he really was, he could now ease off the gas and live life as a legend, and could choose to step away gracefully by withdrawing rather than test the staying power of images of a hobbled or disappointing final routine.  I think he realized this in the moment before he informed the judges of his withdrawal.  It explains why there seemed to be a striking lack of surprise and disappointment in the words he spoke after his withdrawal/retirement, despite the sudden non-Jeter like nature of it.  Dare I say, he seemed quite content.

Each athlete simply controlled the narrative to the maximum extent he could under the circumstances.  The great ones earn the right to do so.

Footnotes:

  1. Nomar Garciaparra hit some high peaks before falling apart, and Alex Rodriguez went onto submit one of the greatest statistical, although perhaps not the most universally respected, careers of all time, as well as be the subject of one of the 15 to 20 most entertaining centaur-related rumors of recent years.
  2. Swede Gillis Grafstrom accomplished the feat in the 20’s and 30’s.
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