Derek Jeter Saved Baseball

New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter did something big. You might be thinking World Series, Rookie of the Year or MVP awards, and you’d be right. But “The Captain” did something bigger, and it took him 20 years to do it. In a professional sports world wrought with PED’s, drug and alcohol abuse, gambling and domestic violence (among others), Jeter accomplished something that arguably no player ever has, or ever will; he saved the game of baseball.

 

Just 2 days ago, I had to pay up on the promise I’d made my bride; helping her clean the house. On a Saturday. What was I thinking? It was sunny, 80 degrees, low humidity and a perfect day to be outside. But, a promise is a promise, and at 5′ 1″ and 97 pounds, she can still bench press more than the dads on my son’s baseball team. While dusting the master bedroom furniture, a commercial came across my TV (hey, if I’m taking a full day to clean, there WILL be a game on in the background!). The black and white ad showed the stylishly dressed Jeter asking his driver to pull over so he could mingle with fans on the streets of New York. Everywhere he went, people were shocked, in awe of this majestic sports icon filtering through their community with a smile and a handshake. Kids were mesmerized, girls screamed, dads thanked him for his character, while women and bar owners alike cried tears of joy and disbelief. To be in the very presence of the 6’3″, 195 lb. idol was almost too much to handle for most, and the entire time Jeter does what he always does; “Mr. November” smiled and kept his cool. He thanked them. He looked them in the eye, hugged them, talked to them, made them feel special. As this commercial came to a close with #2 entering the stadium amid raucous cheers of admiration, I did something I couldn’t believe. I cried. What? Come on, man! Cried? Over a commercial? It’s true. You see, I came up to the big leagues at the same time as Jeter. I played against him a few times in my short, 2-year MLB stint as a backup outfielder. I talked to him at SS, groaned when he, on my failed steal attempt of second base during a snow storm in NY, tagged me on the head so hard I expected him to hand it back to me before I trotted back to my dugout. And, I cried, right there in my bedroom while holding a rag and can of Pledge Furniture Polish. I’d spend the next 48 hours trying to figure out why…

I’ve done research on Jeter for years, both for radio show topics, blog posts, teaching moments for my kids, you name it. My favorite line to my boys while watching a game featuring the Yankees: “Daddy used to play against that guy!” Like any young, desensitized son of a former big leaguer, especially one with feeble stats, they responded in the honest manner only kids know how to do: “Wow, dad. Just how old IS Derek Jeter?” “Good one, son. You’re grounded.” I’m kidding about the grounding, of course, but when you think about it, their statement is quite telling. Jeter was the ’96 Rookie of the Year. He’s been in the post season 16 times, including a run of 12 consecutive seasons from ’96-’07. He’s in his 20th and final season, the curtain closing upon a Hall of Fame career that began at age 20. He owns a career avg. of .310, as well as a career post season avg. of .308. He’s the only player in MLB history to win the All-Star Game and World Series MVP in the same season (’00), although LA Angels OF Mike Trout has a chance to match it this season. He’s won so many awards that he’d have to buy another home just to showcase all that hardware, and although he could afford to do that 20 times over, he never would. He’s not built that way. I find it ironic that the only person on the planet who wouldn’t be interested in seeing the tangible accolades of Derek Jeter would be Jeter himself. He’s a lock for a first-time HOF ballot, and he’ll forever be immortalized as one of the faces of the most storied franchise in history, alongside Ruth, Mantle, Maris, Dimaggio, Gehrig, & Rivera (among many others). One day, I’ll take my boys on a trek to the MLB Baseball Hall of Fame, and rest assured, we’ll continue on to the cathedral otherwise known as Yankee Stadium. I’ll tell them all about Yankee history, a conversation that could take hours. Wouldn’t I be doing them a disservice by not talking about one of the greatest shortstops of all time?

Away from the playing field, Jeter’s charitable work started early. In ’96, he founded the “Turn 2 Foundation“, an organization that helps youth avoid the pitfalls of drug/alcohol addiction, even rewarding those with high academic achievement and healthy lifestyles. As a child, Jeter’s favorite player was former Yankee Dave Winfield, not only for his playing ability but for his charitable work with kids. It became a life goal for him, and to this day, “Turn 2” has raised over $17 million in grants. He’s also given his efforts to charities such asStandUp2Cancer & Soles4Souls, among others. A few years ago, Siena College in NY awarded him with an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters for his charitable work. He’s signed autographs for millions, spent time with the sick, the hungry, the less fortunate. He’s made himself available anywhere and everywhere, whether he was asked to or not. He’s used his platform responsibly, wisely, and most times, so others could benefit.

I remember playing in the old Yankee Stadium. I was mesmerized by the history, the “ghosts” of the greats, and the players on the field that were preparing to put a beat down on a fledgling Royals franchise. I recall the intense media pressure on those players, living both vicariously through them and being thankful it wasn’t me who had to perform in the pinstripes. New York is, by far, the most difficult media city to play in. The fans and media alike are relentless, and can pick apart a player like a cheetah searching for the weakest member of the herd, waiting patiently for one small mistake, then devouring it bones and all. In 20 years, “Captain Clutch” was unflappable. There has been an air about him that made you realize you were in the presence of greatness, at least until you witnessed him call his manager “Mr. Torre”, or his boss, ‘THE Boss’, “Mr. Steinbrenner”. Derek Jeter has always realized he’s lucky, in spite of the countless swings, workouts, diets, slumps (there weren’t many), losses (not many of those, either), etc. He humbly accepts his talents and successes as blessings, and he responsibly, albeit continually, lives up to his calling as a role model. He’s never been ejected from a game. Ever. He’s played 20 years, I’ve played 2, and I can’t say that (at least 5). He’s never been arrested, never been in trouble. He’s worked hard, played hard (ON the field), and made his loyal and loving parents proud of the way he represents the Jeter family. When you think about it, it’s not so surprising when you look at all he’s done on and off the field with that incredible support from home.

I can think of many reasons why that Jeter ad made me happy. It reminded me of playing against him. It reminded me of just how difficult it is to play 2 years in the Bigs, let alone 20. It reminded me of how hard it is to hit a 98 mph fastball that explodes out of a pitchers’ hand, the 72 mph change-up that drops off a table, and the 88 mph slider that most hitters pull off of for strike 3, while Jeter takes it down the right field line for a double and an RBI. The ad made me thankful that I can point my sons to a role model who most likely won’t let them down by winding up in jail or rehab. It made me happy for him because at age 40, your body doesn’t do what it did in your 20’s or 30’s, and he’s due for a rest. He’s more than earned it. It made me glad for Yankee fans to get a final opportunity to thank him, and Royals fans who finally won’t have to deal with him anymore. I’ll miss the ground ball in the hole at short that caused breathless anticipation, that moment where in one fell swoop Jeter would backhand the ball, perform the acrobatic, in-the-air jump turn, and throw an off-balance laser to first with guided-missile precision, nailing a runner, regardless of speed, by a hair. I’ll miss that inside-out swing that helped him keep balls fair. Want to know that REAL reason why that Jeter ad made me cry? If you take all of these stats and character traits and integrity moves he’s made for 20 years, it can all be summed up in this sentence….amidst all the filth, all the cheating, all the cutting corners and anger and bravado and media and controversy, it all comes down to this. Because of who Derek Jeter is, and because he LIVED what he said he would be on and off the field, Derek Jeter respected baseball. He respected others, from umpires to opposing players to ushers to public service workers to concession stand servers. Most importantly to me, Derek Jeter respected himself, and I’ll always be thankful to him for that. And for the record, I’ve never dusted an armoire better than I did that day…

EPILOGUE

When Ricky Henderson broke the stolen base record, he was given a microphone. With both hands, he hoisted the base above his head and looked to the sky with elation. We all waited with breathless anticipation, only to hear him call himself “The Greatest of All Time”. He stole his own moment with his own inflated ego. As far as stealing bases goes, that may be true, but to recognize oneself as such, among so many greats before him, is, in fact, nauseating.

On Thursday, Sept. 25th, Derek Jeter will play his final regular season home game in Yankee Stadium. He’ll give a speech one final time, and as history has already dictated, he’ll go out like he came in. Thankful. He will credit his family, the NY Yankees, and the thousands of adoring fans in attendance, along with the millions watching or listening away from the stadium. He’ll push the credit away from himself, which to me is ironic; his career stats would certainly dictate some sort of ‘ego moment’. But that’s not “The Captain”. He won’t do it. Jeter stands for what’s right about the greatest game ever invented. It’s about grit, determination, and humility. It’s about responsibility and the carrying of the torch of those who got it right before him. It’s about a man who gave us everything we wanted in the game, and much, much more. You may not like the Yankees, but you can’t help but love a guy like Jeter, because when you remember him years from now, you’ll recall what’s right about the game, what’s still perfect about it. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll cry too…