BREAKING IN: Derek Jeter and the Art of Screenwriting

Recently, an interviewer asked some top major league baseball players what their greatest fear is. For guys who don’t flinch when 90-mile-an-hour fastballs are fired at them every day, they gave some surprising answers. Some said: “Heights.” One said: “Spiders.” But how did New York Yankees superstar and future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter answer that question? “Being unprepared.”

Derek Jeter (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Derek Jeter (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

If you aspire to be a successful screenwriter, “being unprepared” should be your greatest fear, too. Learning your craft, and always working hard and smart to do your absolute best, should be your goals every day.

Derek Jeter has announced he’ll be retiring at the end of the 2014 baseball season. But before the legendary Yankee Captain makes his final exit from the game, is there anything more that screenwriters can learn from the way Jeter has conducted himself— on and off the baseball field– during his stellar 23-year career in professional baseball?

Well, as Yogi Berra used to say, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” So, here are five tips inspired by Derek Jeter– the man they call “Captain Clutch.”

1. BOUNCE BACK FROM DEFEATS AND REJECTIONS. It’s often been said that baseball is the only profession where you’re considered a huge success if you fail 2/3 of the time. A batting average of .333 would put you about on a par with the lifetime average of baseball great Stan Musial— and well above Jeter’s current, superb lifetime batting average of 312. If you’re a really successful writer, you can still expect to see your work rejected at least 2/3 of the time– and that’s after many “swings of the bat.” So, get used to it. When he was a rookie, Derek Jeter was once sent back down to the minor leagues by the Yankees when Fernandez, the guy on the DL he’d briefly been subbing for, returned to play for the team. And who was sent back down with Jeter on the very same day in June of 1995? His teammate Mariano Rivera– who would later become the greatest closing pitcher of all time and also a lock for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Naturally, the young Jeter and Rivera were feeling upset and disappointed that day (“But at least we went down together,” Jeter told Fox Sports in 2012). But they both handled the demotion with class, continued to work hard to get better at their craft, and bounced back.  What would have happened to baseball history if these two future baseball All-Stars had thrown in the towel after having a career setback? As a writer, you need to learn to hang in there and keep your chin up.

2. KNOW YOUR NICHE. Just because you’re really good doesn’t mean you’re great at everything. You’d do well to focus your energies on developing your strengths. Derek Jeter is a shortstop– always has been (although he did play other sports as well in high school)– and even from early childhood said that he was going to be a shortstop someday for the New York Yankees. Does that mean Jeter would also have been a great pitcher, as Babe Ruth was? Maybe not. Catcher? Perhaps, because Jeter certainly has the athleticism and agility, a good arm, a great work ethic, people skills, and the smarts for that job. But, besides the fact that at 6′ 3″ he’d be very tall for a catcher, chances are he also would have had a shorter career than he’s had at shortstop, because knees tend to give out after playing that position for a number of years. And being a great catcher is not something one can learn overnight. Like anyone else, Jeter would have had to learn the art of being a catcher, and that takes a lot of time. Nobody has time to become great at everything, and everybody has some things they do better than others. Pitcher Mariano Rivera had a lousy 10.20 ERA (anything below 4.0 is considered really good) in 15 innings as a starting pitcher in the major leagues for the Yankees— until he specialized and became a closer with his famous “cutter” pitch, and the rest is history. If you’re a screenwriter, once you discover your “niche,” it’s best to specialize in one genre. It makes it easier for producers to want to hire you or agents to represent you if you are known for one particular type of story.  But also, no one is truly great at everything. Not even if your name is Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera.

3. NO EXCUSES. One of the reasons that baseball fans and others admire Derek Jeter so much– he was recently chosen as #11 (just two slots behind the Dalai Lama) on Fortune magazine’s list of the world’s 50 greatest leaders– is that he leads by example, has a legendary work ethic, doesn’t whine, and doesn’t make excuses. Even when he is injured, if the manager asks him how he is, his usual answer is, “I’m fine, let’s go.” The only time that wasn’t the case was when he broke his ankle making a play on the field at Yankee Stadium in 2012, and literally couldn’t get up. Even when he dislocated his shoulder during a game some years before that, Jeter looked up at then-manager Joe Torre and said, “I’ll be in there tomorrow, Mr. T.” Jeter’s stoicism and work ethic are legendary. He once dived head first into the stadium stands to make a catch in the 12th inning of a game against the Boston Red Sox, and re-emerged with the baseball in his glove—a blood-spattered uniform, and a chin gash needing 7 stitches. So, the next time you complain that your work as a screenwriter is too hard, it’s too tough to “break in”, or your back is aching from sitting long hours typing on your laptop, think of Derek Jeter.

4. BE NICE. Yes, being nice counts— in baseball, in screenwriting, and in life. Jeter is admired not only for his skills on the baseball field, but also for the fact that he is a class act wherever he goes. He doesn’t bad-mouth anyone or betray confidences. He thanks people and treats fans, teammates, opposing players, and everyone who crosses paths with him, with respect. He also gets along really well with his family. His parents and sister, Sharlee, help him run his charity, the Turn 2 Foundation. Heck, even the Boston Red Sox like Derek Jeter. Film is a collaborative business. If you want to work in this industry, remember to be polite and respectful, and thank people for their help.

5. IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU, IT’S ABOUT THE TEAM. I’m sure that, sometimes, Derek Jeter has to do things to help the Yankees win that he’d rather not do. The manager, Joe Girardi, might have to bench him to give him a rest– protecting his soon-to-be 40-year-old shortstop’s ability to play for the entire, long baseball season– when he’d rather get out there and play. Jeter might have to bunt to get in a run when he’d rather swing for a line drive. But he follows orders– to help the team win—and he also knows that even though he’s a star, he’s still an employee of the New York Yankees and, in that sense, just like any other player on the team. He still refers to the late team owner, George Steinbrenner– whose adult children now own the Yankees—as “The Boss.” Joe Torre, the former manager of the team, was always, “Mr. Torre,” or “Mr. T.” When reporters praise Jeter for his achievements on the playing field, he deflects the attention and praises his teammates instead. And when Jeter plays well– which is nearly all the time—if his team doesn’t win the game, or they make it to the playoffs but not the World Series, he wants no congratulations on his personal contributions. As far as he’s concerned, “almost good enough” is not good enough. The goal every year is for his team to win and go all the way. When a producer who has hired you to write a screenplay asks you to revise your script, you may disagree. But remember that it’s not about you. You work for the team– not the other way around– and your job is to help the team win.

Keep pitching. See you next month.

STATON RABIN is a screenplay analyst and script marketing consultant who has been a reader for Warner Bros. Pictures, New Line, the William Morris Agency, top screenwriting contests– and writers like you. She’s taught screenwriting on land (at a major university) and sea (aboard the Queen Mary 2). An award-winning screenwriter/novelist (her BETSY AND THE EMPEROR from Simon & Schuster was optioned and in development for Al Pacino), Staton’s writer clients have won screenwriting contests, and seen their scripts become movies. She’s available for consultations and can be reached at Cutebunion@aol.com.

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