November 30, 2009
The Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award is an arbitrary honor. It is loosely defined by both on- and off-field achievement and, unlike most of baseball's laurels, there are no statistical benchmarks that can help determine the winner. There are no formulas and you can make a case for pretty much anyone who had any measure of success that year.
So when you consider both the impact that intangibles can have on the award and Sports Illustrated's geographic location, it comes as a Big Apple-sized surprise that Derek Jeter(notes) — or any other Yankee for that matter — had never been named the Sportsman of the Year over the award's first 55 years. Not Roger Maris in 1961. Not Reggie Jackson in '77. Not Jeter, Mariano Rivera(notes) or any of their '98-'00 teammates.
Of course, all of that reverse East Coast media bias changed on Monday morning when the magazine announced that it was making Jeter the 56th honoree in an issue that will drop on Dec. 7.
Jeter's place on the front of the magazine — his 12th SI cover — doesn't come as a huge surprise. Gawker reported the honor over the weekend and it comes after a steroids-tinged season that saw baseball's Mr. Clean post one of his best years while winning the fifth World Series title of his career. Cynics may say that this was merely a ploy to sell more magazines — Yanks merch is hot — but there weren't any candidates who were more deserving. (It should be noted that Joel Sherman of the NY Post thinks A-Rod was the guy.)
Jeter still doesn't have an MVP award for his mantel — he was rightfully denied by Joe Mauer(notes) and teammate Mark Teixeira(notes) this season — but it seems like SI's award was almost tailor-made for athletes like him. Though the baseball world has made a move toward only recognizing qualities that can be assigned a metric, there's nothing wrong with awards designed for rewarding the total measure of a man. The 2000s have been a tumultuous period for baseball and when you consider that Jeter was one of the few good constants over that time period, he was the right call to be honored after a great 2009 campaign.
By the way, Jeter is the first individual baseball player to receive the honor since Cal Ripken in 1995. The entire Red Sox team was named in 2004 while Curt Schilling(notes) and Randy Johnson(notes) won in 2001 and some guys named Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa(notes) — whoops — took the cover in 1998.