Glory Days

Derek Jeter, A Most Elegant Captain

Babe Ruth. Lou Gehrig. Joe Di Maggio. The lineage of Yankee Gods is long and sacrosanct. Roger Maris. Mickey Mantle. Yogi Berra. These are far more than mere ballplayers, far more than immortal greats. Whitey Ford. Don Mattingly. Reggie Jackson. Each wore those fabled pinstripes with classy distinction; each decorated Yankee Stadium with pennants and banners and memories; each carried upon his shoulders the Holy weight of Yankee Mystique. There is an aura to this organisation. An aura of winning created by the actions of such players; an aura of human decency which shone through in their behaviour; an aura of invincibility. The men who upheld the sanctity of baseball’s most storied franchise are accorded all manner of superlatives. By and large, they deserve every one. Thus, we should take the opportunity to enjoy and acknowledge in fervent tones the current steward of Yankee Greatness. Derek Jeter will soon disappear into the sunset, leaving only footprints in the hallowed dirt. Already, he’s assured of a place amongst the all-time legends. In these final months, we should appreciate his eminence and honour his legacy. We’re blessed to coexist with the latest Yankee Icon.

In our cynical modern day, its fun to mock rather than adore such public figures. Many mainstream baseball fans are guilty of disrespecting Derek Jeter, a phenomenon which leaves me routinely baffled. You know exactly what I’m talking about. He’s overrated; a line-drive hitter whose greatest skill is serendipity; a pampered celebrity who was propelled into the record books by the splendid team and city around him. He’s a VIP; a suave operator whose life of luxury has been handed on a silver platter; a teenage heartthrob who can do no wrong. Go on, admit it: that’s why you hate Derek Jeter. You dislike Derek because he’s flawless. You jeer Jeter because he’s got it all. You loathe him, because he’s done everything you ever dreamed of, because he scaled the highest mountain and stayed there for two decades, because he’s banged every chick you ever fantasized about. In reality, Derek Jeter is much more than the narcissistic sprite of mainstream derision. He’s one of the most august players, indeed men, ever to step foot on a baseball diamond.

The smoldering pageantry of Jeter at bat ranks amongst my earliest baseball memories. Even in those moments, which can be so full of pressure and violence, Derek remained elegant. The patrons of Yankee Stadium, oftentimes occupied by their own buzzing lives, would turn and watch when Jeter strode to the dish. Initially, he would dig in, like a master becoming comfortable in familiar surroundings. Then, in a poignant pause, Jeter would look out towards the pitcher, smiling as if hyper yet calculating his approach behind steamy blue eyes. Derek would wipe the visor of his shiny batting helmet, ask the umpire for time with a briefly-extended right arm, windmill his black bat twice or thrice, then settle into a proud, upright, confident stance. The pinstripes fit with ethereal perfection; the evocative 2 cast dominantly on his back. Derek Jeter is the most agile hitter I’ve witnessed. He’s regal, lithe, grace personified. I’m always taken aback by the energy which sizzles through his body in the batters box. He’s alive, alert, able to whip the bat through any part of the strike zone with searing speed and inimitable control. Invariably, Jeter lurches and pushes a line drive into the alley, then scoots around the bases with incredible ease. The guy is a baseball emperor; his plate appearances filing amongst its finest poetry.

Of course, Jeter is a lifelong Yankee. This adds greatly to his lyrical appeal. A pantheon of baseball legends has enlightened the history of that franchise. In total, 51 members of Baseball’s Hall of Fame have spent all or part of their careers with New York’s American League organisation. From The Sultan of Swat and Murderers Row to The Bronx Bombers and Mr October, this is much more than a baseball team. It’s an institution, with history dripping from every pore. Derek Jeter is an integral part of that. A quick appraisal of the records he’s authored, and the people he’s surpassed, should leave you in little doubt with regard to Jeter’s standing alongside the all-time greats. Of all the ball-playing demigods to don a Yankee uniform, none has more career hits than Derek Jeter. At time of writing, he has 3,335 hits, some 600 more than Gehrig, his nearest New York competitor. Indeed, Derek ranks eighth all-time in this category, out of more than 18,000 men to play Major League Baseball. The seven eternal heroes who’ve accumulated more? Yastrzemski, Wagner, Speaker, Musial, Aaron, Cobb, Rose.

Jeter has played more games for the New York Yankees than anybody in history; stolen the most bases; and gone to bat for that organisation on more than 10,000 occasions. He ranks third in Yankee runs scored, behind Gehrig and the Bambino; second in doubles; ninth in home runs; sixth in RBI; fifth in walks; and seventh in batting average. Only eleven men in the wider history of baseball have scored more runs than Derek Jeter. In adding these stupefying accomplishments to his thirteen All-Star selections, five World Series rings and 1996 Rookie of the Year Award, we see a truly remarkable baseball scion.

The finest honour ever bestowed upon Derek Jeter? Since 2003, he has been Yankees Captain, a franchise privileged accorded only to its foremost disciples.

Whilst Jeter’s sparkling regular season consistency amounts to a legacy of class, his playoff heroics are trappings on a glittering career. The postseason is the focus of baseball desire. Everybody strives to be involved; commits blood, sweat and tears over the course of six months just to be in with an opportunity when glory is meted out in the Fall. Postseason baseball is what separates superstars from immortals, and Derek has played more postseason games than any other player, logged more postseason at-bats than any other player, scored more postseason runs, cracked more postseason hits, drove more postseason doubles, legged-out more postseason triples, and collected more postseason bases than any other player. Again, here many argue that Jeter was lucky to get as many postseason opportunities; that the reckless spending of George Steinbrenner in erecting an all-conquering empire somehow made Derek’s career all the more easy. How does such a cynical assumption work, exactly? Didn’t Babe Ruth have a strong team around him? Gehrig was supported by the most-acclaimed collection of superstars ever assembled. Accordingly, to criticise Derek Jeter on the basis that he played on an extremely-talented, highly-paid team is ridiculous, asinine, illogical. No matter who he shared a clubhouse with, who hit behind him, who shared the weight, this guy still had to walk to the plate in the searing postseason spotlight, amid the greatest worldwide scrutiny, and perform his craft in front of watching millions. Admittedly, the expansion of postseason play in modern times has underscored many of these records, but arguably this makes his accomplishments even more remarkable; Jeter having to defend his records against even more players playing even more postseason games. The fact that he excelled to such an unprecedented degree is truly sensational. It’s a historic achievement, not a lucky quirk of happenstance.

Jeter’s contribution to Yankee baseball extends far beyond details in the box score. The guy’s sense of historical awakening is matched only by his impulsive winners instinct. The inhumane backhand flip to Jorge Posada against Oakland. The walk-off, World Series homer two weeks later to become Mr November. The gutsy grandstand dive to snare a pop-up against Boston. How do you even begin to rank such unbelievable feats of epic theater? Aside from hitting at an almost ceaseless pace, Derek Jeter is a commanding leader. He wants to win more than anybody. He demands the best from his teammates. He is, in ever sense, the modern day bearer of ancient Yankee Mystique.

The Captain, indeed.

Yes, he’s engaged in high-profile relationships with Mariah Carey and Jessica Alba and Minka Kelly. Yes, the Yankees have paid him $265m to remain their poster boy. Yes, he’s seemingly endorsed every product on the face of Planet Earth. But Derek Jeter is also a selfless giver to charity. In my eyes, he will be forever defined by his philanthropy. In 1996, shortly after rising to prominence in the Majors, Jeter founded the Turn 2 Foundation, which has raised millions of dollars and helped thousands of adolescents avoid drug and alcohol addiction. In more general terms, he rarely refuses an autograph, poses tirelessly for pictures and goes about his work with trademark dignity. In every way, Derek Jeter has been the ideal role model for the best part of twenty years.

It always seemed likely that he would make it to the top. Derek was born in the Pequannock Township in New Jersey, a mere thirty-five minutes from the baseball coliseum of Yankee Stadium. When it eventually decides to canonize the life of this baseball great, Hollywood will likely skip the part whereby his family moved to Michigan when Jeter was four, because he seems an archetypal born Yankee. However, that actually happened; Derek and his sister Sharlee living with their parents in Kalamazoo but spending summers back in New Jersey with Yankee-obsessed grandparents. It was during those years that Jeter became fascinated with baseball. Indeed, he would occasionally attend games at Yankee Stadium, and the family tried to attend whenever New York rolled into Detroit to play the Tigers. Derek also watched on television, quickly becoming a passionate Yankees fan. Ron Guidry and Don Mattingly were good, but Dave Winfield was his favourite, his boyhood idol, his inspiration for pursuing a baseball career.

Naturally, Jeter played ball throughout his youth, no doubt pretending to win Game Seven with a walk-off dinger just like any other boy. However, his parents made sure that academic studies came before baseball, with Jeter’s athletic participation predicated on strong school reports. For such an even-keeled, highly-confident kid so full of charisma and destiny, this was no problem. Jeter took it all in stride, with typical energy and grace. When his fourth grade class shared their future career aspirations, young Derek stood up and proclaimed his desire to play shortstop for the New York Yankees. According to legend, he even wrote a detailed essay about that very aspiration. It wasn’t until he began tearing up the High School record books that people took his dream seriously. Once they saw the utter destruction he could create on a field, people were furnished with the true barometer they needed. This guy had prodigious potential.

In three years at Kalamazoo High, he posted utterly ridiculous numbers; Jeter hitting .508 and .557 and .508 despite rarely seeing a pitch near the strike zone. Even an unfortunate ankle injury in his senior year didn’t slow Jeter; the slick shortstop averaging one RBI per game and striking out just once all season. It became clear that nothing would stop this guy, who wore Yankee regalia on campus and walked with an aura of refined confidence. Jeter began planning, rather than hoping, to turn professional. Any other kid would be content to play for any old team, so long as the generic dream of becoming a big league ballplayer was realised. Not Jeter. No, Derek was a made-to-order, straight-from-the-heavens, ready-made New York Yankee.

At this point, another sprinkle of that charmed pixie dust helped smooth the path for this baseball prince. Such was Jeter’s talent, it became obvious that he would be selected in the first round of any draft. Furthermore, he was considered a top-ten player at collegiate level in the early-1990s. In order to aid competition and maintain a level playing field, Major League Baseball determines its draft order by reversing the standings from the immediately preceding season. Thus, the New York Yankees, near-perennial chasers of the pennant, became accustomed to picking later in the draft. However, in 1991, years of encroaching turmoil yielded a dreary 71-91 record and the sixth slot in the draft for 1992. This at least put New York in the contention to select Jeter, and can be classed as Twist of Fate Number 1.

That five Major League organisations effectively passed-up the opportunity to draft Derek Jeter is still astounding. But it happened. Despite the protestations of scout Hal Newhouser, Houston overlooked Jeter in favour of Phil Nevin with the first overall pick. Newhouser quit on the spot. Cleveland chose Paul Shuey; Montreal selected BJ Wallace; Baltimore went with Jeffrey Hammonds; and Cincinnati picked Chad Mottola. We can lump all of those teams, all of those myopic executives, all of those missed chances right in there under the heading Twist of Fate Number 2.

Jeter wanted to be a Yankee with every fibre of his being. So did many kids. It strikes me that the chief decision-makers inside Yankee Stadium could easily have been disaffected by Derek’s desire. After all, they ran a complex, seething juggernaut of commerce and business and industry. The New York Yankees could have dismissed Derek Jeter with effortless ease because, from afar, he resembled many a High School dreamer.

Enter Dick Groch, and Twist of Fate Number 3.

A Midwest scout, Groch brought a humanistic, if not sentimental, outlook to the War Room discussions on draft day. He valued the intangible feel of a certain player, a certain move, a certain decision. Groch knew all about Yankee Mystique, and the need to find an ideal heir to Mattingly as its physical embodiment was pressing. It just so happens that he watched this Jeter kid during a local All-Star Game, and was taken aback by his talent. Almost immediately, Groch knew that he’d discovered the Holy Grail, but he still had to persuade Yankee functionaries who worried that Jeter may attend University. “The only place Derek Jeter’s going is to Cooperstown,” Groch declared. Gene Michael selected the glossy shortstop, altering the course of baseball history forever.

Jeter was joined by Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada in forming The Core Four around which New York built a towering dynasty. Bernie Williams also contributed greatly to a united team of homegrown players which won seven pennants and five World Series Championships between 1996-2009. Everybody contributed. Rivera saved games with conviction never to be replicated. Pettitte painted his way to over 250 wins. Posada was a hero in action and spirit, defending like a lion behind the dish and growing into an offensive force. Even the front office and manager Joe Torre contributed to the on-field success by a considerable degree. But nobody impacted New York like Derek Jeter.

The shortstop brought far more than a lightning bat and enthralling glove. No, Jeter was the leader. And not just of a rampaging Yankee ballclub. Rather, Derek became the definitive face of Major League Baseball; the beating heart of All-American spirit; the definitive poster boy of the planets most saturated sports city. I don’t quite know how to highlight certain achievements from his sensational career without damaging the wider body of work. The 8 seasons of 200+ hits? The 12 seasons of hitting .300 or better? The time he was named All-Star Game and World Series MVP in the very same season? I could go on all night.

Ultimately, the fact that very few singular memories explode into view is testament to Derek Jeter’s enduring greatness, and his inimitable consistency. The guy has been so routinely excellent for such a lengthy period of time, in such a gracious manner, as to stand entirely alone in the annals of modern baseball history.

But what if it had all been different?

What if Jeter had never become a Yankee? What if he spent his career rattling around the Astrodome? What if he rocked-up in Cleveland? What if Derek Jeter actually became a Montreal Expo? Arguably, he may have brought tremendous success to those organisations, providing a new vibrancy to endure and encourage. But it just wouldn’t be the same. He wouldn’t be the same. Without the pinstripes, the captaincy, the weight of history placed firmly on his shoulders, Derek Jeter would be largely indistinguishable from other exceptional players. As an Indian, an Oriole, even a Red, success can bring only so much; whereas those succeeding as a New York Yankee are elevated to whole new levels of adulation. That’s a beautiful thing, not an object worthy of scorn. It’s great that baseball has a team so bathed in mythology. It adds to its overall density and importance. I, for one, will forever cherish the fact that Derek Jeter became a Yankee, because it has gifted millions the opportunity to witness one of society’s most absorbing phenomena: New York falling in-love with an all-conquering icon. Just like Ruth. Just like Gehrig. Just like DiMaggio.

I’m forever grateful that Derek Jeter came along when and where he did. Whilst he dazzled on the diamond, I watched on in respectful appreciation. When he exits stage left from this quaint fairytale, I’ll likely shed a tear.

Farewell, dear Captain.

And thank you.

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