An entertaining primer on the history of the Yankee shortstop, but most of the seven-episode documentaries feel more like highlights than an in-depth portrait.
Champion portraits are painted in failure. From youth sports maxims that “it’s not how you win, it’s how you lose” to professional athletes who use opponents as bulletin board material, there is no such thing as success. is not accompanied by the opposite feeling. It is one of the inherent attractions of sport, that for every winner there are an equal or greater number of rivals to overcome as obstacles to the prize.
It’s not accurate to say that Derek Jeter never lost, despite the reputation he built up early in his career. The first part of “The Captain,” a new seven-part ESPN series about the career and days of the New York Yankees Hall of Fame shortstop, navigates the hardships of his professional debut. There are tiny nods to the “what if” paths his life would have taken if a few key injuries and crucial second chances had never happened. These are indicative of the best parts of “The Captain,” the ones that allow director Randy Wilkins to examine Jeter’s relationship with adversity, whatever form it takes.
In the vein of other recent sports documentaries produced by ESPN and others, Jeter is the main attraction here, offering his direct-to-camera perspective on his life in a handful of different interview locations. Aside from the show’s framing device of beginning each episode with clips from his 2014 farewell game at Yankee Stadium, the rest of the series follows a roughly chronological narrative of the twenty years between the draft and retirement.
In a weird way, one of the show’s first responsibilities is that Derek Jeter has won a lot. The stretch of “The Captain” covering the first five years of his career takes up almost half of the overall series. For this stretch, “The Captain” works best as an introduction to a dynasty, a primer on a dominant half-decade run that made Jeter a star in the Bronx and far beyond. Perhaps after years and years of media training in New York or dozens of other retrospectives, there’s not much in “The Captain” that feels revealing or designed to answer a burning question. on what made these Yankee teams tick. It’s not a project designed to delve deep into its subject’s psyche, beyond coming away with the repeated refrain that he worked really hard to get where he was and really didn’t like to lose. .
The closest ‘The Captain’ comes to capturing anything of the true substance of the clubhouse is the long-simmering tension between Jeter and fellow generational star Alex Rodriguez, which has been the subject of public debate since they are both teenagers. These episodes don’t come much closer to clarity than the countless “he said, he said” stories that have come before, not least because both sides involved have two of the most finely calculated baseball characters in recent memory. It’s not that “The Captain” is a brilliant, singularly positive product, but its on-camera contributors are rarely willing to add anything that doesn’t already match a pre-existing conception of how one of these events on or off depleted terrain.
At the risk of drawing comparisons between wildly different projects, it’s hard to watch this series and not think of another long-running 2022 baseball documentary: The Secret Base. Four-part “Dorktown” look to the personal and professional roller coaster of the Toronto Blue Jays with iconoclast Dave Steib. This biography, perhaps because it doesn’t work with direct player interviews, is almost centered around the power of drama inherent in the games themselves. What begins as a handful of simple box scores becomes miniature Greek tragedies in pursuit of an elusive no-hitter or American League Championship Series showdown. It’s peppered with anecdotes and snippets of gaming stories and profiles that are gold bullion in local news.
In “The Captain,” particularly when the Yankees’ steamrolling made their championship runs seem like a predestined outcome, the actual games often seem incidental. The gravity and tension of building one step closer to a title is lost in glimpses of standard issues that race through gameplay footage at lightning speed. (The sweeps aren’t always the most dynamic, but the entire 1998 World Series, the culmination of one of the greatest seasons in baseball history, takes up just 90 seconds of screen time. ) These stretches in particular are caught in a hazy middle ground that’s probably too jaded for non-baseball fans to care and too rote to offer diehards anything fresh. That starts to turn around as the series progresses into the 2000s and the arrival of some iconic Boston Red Sox matchups, but that’s not until the loss really starts to mount.
“The Captain” has access to a slew of Jeter’s former coaches, teammates, and opponents, each offering their own nibbles at tempting moments on the Yankee timeline from the 90s through 10s. More “The Captain” continues, however, the more it sounds like a story told by sportswriters. It’s not a knock on the likes of Joel Sherman, Howard Bryant, Buster Olney and Mark Feinsand, impressive storytellers in their own right who were on hand for many of these field shows. By their own admission, there was a wall between them and “the real Derek” that remained largely intact throughout his career. (There are more than a few montages of the shortstop’s brand of magnanimous postgame platitudes.) With a Jeter here barely less guarded than the level of savvy media scrutiny he displayed during his days game, “The Captain” can’t help but feel like a tale of familiar public knowledge on a larger canvas.
A major refrain in early episodes of “The Captain” is a parade of members of the baseball media asking Jeter if he was living an enchanted existence. With its boundless successes on the pitch, the series looks to media-related (and in a number of cases, media-generated) stories away from the diamond to fill the void of conflict. Even then, when it comes down to “getting drafted 6th overall instead of 5th” or “a bachelor from New York having too much fun at night” or “a world-class athlete having to make a few more arguments to get the nine-figure contract he so rightly deserves’, it’s also hard to really put them in the failures column.
Much of “The Captain” is an exercise in understanding what Derek Jeter means to those who have watched him. Baseball fans, New York natives, celebrity readers and elite athletes from other sports all have a say in the series, extending that perception of him as a person beyond the numbers in a book of records. When “The Captain” focuses on the conversations that never happened during Jeter’s career for fear of being a distraction, that’s when the show starts to feel less like a insight or an early conclusion. It’s not something designed to be built around explosive reveals (much like Michael Jordan’s Jump 23 was an official partner of “The Last Dance”, The Players’ Tribune, founded by Jeter, appears in the credits of opening here), but any opportunity for a more candid and less calculated discussion of the past 30 years is always to the show’s advantage.
To borrow a sports term, “The Captain” has intangible elements: the electricity of a call from Gary Thorne, the chyron in an early local report misspelling his first name, Garth Brooks presenting the 1998 Yankees with an ESPY award. Whenever these episodes can go a step further to portray baseball and fame as the eclectic institutions that they are, and not just the pre-existing crystallized versions of a career, there’s more to grasp. As much as Derek Jeter has been a main attraction of the interconnected public worlds for over half his life now, there’s a feeling throughout an ever-entertaining “Captain” that there’s still more to these worlds. to discover.
“The Captain” airs July 18 on ESPN and ESPN+, following the Home Run Derby at MLB All-Star Weekend. Additional episodes will air Thursday nights starting July 21.